By Ryan Wonsowicz
Since our calendars have been permanently flipped from February to March, now is a great time to talk about one of the most popular sporting events in the world: the Division I Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament, aka March Madness. Every year, millions of Americans slap down twenty bucks to join a bracket with their co-workers while others create hundreds of brackets on ESPN.com hoping that one of theirs is the last one standing. March Madness is truly an event like none other, and it’s one of the greatest pastimes this nation has to offer. As I begin doing research on my 2017 Final Four, I’d thought it’d be cool to take a look back at my favorite March memory.
In the spring of 2011, I was in the 7th grade. My love of sports had already taken root, and I was looking forward to the NCAA tournament. Believe it or not 2011 was my second year of making brackets. I had joined my dad’s office pool of about fifty people and wanted to prove to a bunch of adults that a 13 year old knew a thing or two about college basketball. I had been following teams all year, but there was one school that had intrigued me- UCONN.
By Selection Sunday, the 2011 Huskies held a record of 32-9, going 9-9 in the Big East. Coached by veteran Jim Calhoun and led by point guard Kemba Walker, the Huskies had a season to remember. UCONN’s run started back in November at the 2010 Maui Invitational. Calhoun’s unranked squad took down Wichita State in the first round, pulled a huge upset over #2 Michigan State, and defeated the #6 Kentucky Wildcats in the championship. As the season rolled on, the Huskies were a middle of the pack team, getting ranked as high a #4 and as low as #21 when they entered the Big East Tournament. However, when the lights were the brightest, the Huskies shined. They made their way through the Big East Tournament on the back of Walker (the team won five games in five days), who averaged 26.0 PPG. On Selection Sunday, the Huskies were revealed to be the #3 seed in the West in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. After looking over UCONN’s tape, including Walker’s incredible buzzer beater to beat #3 Pitt, I put my money on Calhoun’s team.
The magical run began with an 82-51 thumping of #14 seed Bucknell in the Round of 64. Walker, Freshman Jeremy Lamb, and Freshman Roscoe Smith all scored north of 15 points to lead the way. In the Round of 32, UCONN matched up with their Big East foe, the Cincinnati Bearcats. Kemba exploded for 33 points, shooting 40% from the field. He also dished out five dimes and collected six rebounds. Lamb finished with 14 points and UCONN advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 69-58 victory.
Up next was the #2 seed San Diego State Aztecs and future NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard. However, Jeremy Lamb played stout defense on Leonard all night, holding him to only 12 points on only five made field goals. On the offensive side of the ball, Walker continued his dominance. He finished with 36 points, shooting 48% from the field and knocking down eight triples. Lamb chipped in with 24 points, and the Huskies won 74-67.
Lady Luck must have been on good terms with Connecticutians, as #1 seed Duke was upset by #5 see Arizona in the Sweet 16. With Kyrie Irving and the Blue Devils out of the picture, UCONN’s chances to advance to the Final Four were looking good. With a trip to Houston on the line, the Huskies went toe to toe with the Wildcats. In the end, UCONN was too deep and squeaked out a two point victory. The X-Factor in this matchup was freshman Shabazz Napier, who contributed 10 points off the bench. Both teams had almost identical stat lines, but Arizona finished with four more turnovers. That may have been the deciding factor. Nevertheless, UCONN was on to its second Final Four in as many years.
With all of America glued to the match on the other side of the bracket between #8 Butler and #11 VCU, a game still had to be played between the Huskies and the #4 Kentucky Wildcats. The storyline in this game was between the two iconic coaches (Jim Calhoun of Connecticut and John Calipari of Kentucky) and the two star point guards (Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight of Kentucky). In a game eerily similar to the one versus Arizona, the Huskies escaped with a one point win. Walker and Knight had almost identical point totals during the game with 18 and 17, respectively. However, Walker shot 20% better from the field than Knight. Despite only hitting one three pointer, UCONN got enough out of Walker, Lamb, and forward Alex Oriakhi, who had 8 points and 10 total rebounds, to muscle their way to the title game.
Butler ended VCU’s run to set up a UCONN-Butler game for all the marbles. To a number of people, Butler was the clear favorite. They had the momentum plus the experience from their tournament run the previous year. However, the Huskies and Walker were too talented for Butler to slow down. Walker and Lamb finished with 16 and 11 points, respectively, and the team shot 35% from the field. Shelvin Mack led the way for the Bulldogs, finishing with 13 points. Star player Matt Howard had a game to forget, finishing with only 7 points on 1-13 shooting. With the win, UCONN clinched its third ever NCAA Championship. Walker was rightly named NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
I was ecstatic about the win. I won my dad’s office pool, which included a $200 dollar prize. Kemba Walker immediately became my favorite player, and I have followed his NBA career closely. UCONN’s title run is one of the most special in recent memory. Kemba Walker’s leadership and ability to take over a game propelled this team to overcome the odds and shock the world by winning the title.
*All stats retrieved from Fox Sports, SB Nation, Sports-Reference.com