Walker leads UConn to Maui title over Kentucky
Thursday, November 25, 2021 7:12 AM

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(Source: Associated Press/AP Online)By JOHN MARSHALL

LAHAINA, Hawaii - Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said before the Maui Invitational he had no idea how good his team would be, joking that he was still trying to figure out his players' names.

The grizzled coach has always been known as a sandbagger, though, and that one turned out to be a whopper.

Kemba Walker scored 29 points to complete a dazzling tournament and unranked Connecticut placed itself firmly back among the nation's elite programs, knocking off No. 8 Kentucky with an 84-67 rout Wednesday night to win the Maui Invitational.

"This is a great step for us," Calhoun said. "It's letting people know that we are Connecticut, have been Connecticut for the past 20-something years and we think we're a pretty good basketball team."

The Huskies didn't leave much doubt during this three-day tournament in paradise.

Connecticut (5-0) opened with a solid win over a good Wichita State team, then wore down No. 2 Michigan State in the semifinals.

The Huskies closed out their second Maui title - they beat Gonzaga in 2005 - by overwhelming Kentucky in the championship game.

Alex Oriakhi had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and the Huskies shot 57 percent against one of the nation's best teams to leave Hawaii with a much clearer picture of who they are.

Coming off a disappointing 2009-10 season, UConn is clearly back.

Kentucky (4-1), despite all those young stars-in-waiting, didn't have an answer when UConn started pouring it on during its big first-half run. Instead of making a comeback in the second half, the Wildcats fell father behind, their inexperience overcoming their talent for once.

Freshman phenom Terrence Jones got off to a great start, spent a good chunk of the first half on the bench with two fouls and finished with 24 points. Darius Miller added 15 points.

The rest of the starters? They went a combined 6 for 26 and the team shot 36 percent.

"That was a shellacking," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We were outplayed, outcoached, out- everythinged."

Walker was the difference from the start.

The tournament MVP almost toyed with the young Wildcats, flipping in runners, 3-pointers and layups to score 90 points in three games, three short of the record set by Chaminade's George Gilmore in 1991.

And when the Wildcats tried to roar back to start the second half, Walker gave them a shhh! He scored on an acrobatic left-hander in the lane and smiled at the crowd as he ran back after a 3-pointer.

"I was having a lot of fun," Walker said.

So was just about everyone else at the Maui Invitational.

After a so-so 2009 run, the prestigious island tournament regained its mojo this year with great teams and well-played games that had fans enjoying the inside of Lahaina Civic Center as much as those majestic views of crystal blue waters and neighboring islands outside.

Except for a few of the loser's bracket games, the high school-sized gym was packed to the rafters with rowdy fans who made it feel like a March tournament, not pre-Thanksgiving.

The title game had some extra juice to it, the mass of Kentucky blue louder than ever while UConn's small-but-proud contingent tried to make itself heard by stomping, screaming and booing.

"That tiny little gym was as noisy as Madison Square Garden or any other place," Calhoun said.

The players were on their game, too.

Jones delivered the first big blow, flying in for a slam over two UConn defenders. Oriakhi answered seconds later, soaring in for a two-handed alley-oop.

UConn kept it going the rest of the first half. The Wildcats didn't.

Jones, after scoring Kentucky's first 10 points, had to spend the final 9:01 of the half on the bench with two fouls, Calipari afraid to put him back in. Three other players had two fouls and had limited playing time.

It didn't seem to matter who was on the floor, though.

Stubbornly challenging UConn's size inside, Kentucky played too much 1-on-1 instead of kicking out to shooters and kept coming away empty, hitting just nine of 30 shots in the first half.

And that was the good part.

Connecticut, led by the always-cool Walker, hardly missed against Kentucky's slow-to-get-back defense.

Hitting 3s, scoring in transition, powering inside - the Huskies seemed to do what they wanted whenever they wanted, going on a 21-2 run to close the first half against a supposedly better team.

"They came out with a viscousness and toughness we couldn't match, from the start of the game," Calipari said.

Walker, called a pit bull by Calipari, was the catalyst.

The junior had 10 of his 17 points during the big run, capping it by unselfishly giving up a 3-pointer for a wide-open layup by Jamal Coombs-McDaniel. The rest of the Huskies weren't bad, either, combining to hit 18 of 30 shots to lead 50-29.

Kentucky tried to make a run in the second half and Walker wouldn't let them. He dropped in a couple more 3-pointers and kept driving hard to the hoop, sending a good chunk of the big blue fans for the exits with just more than 3 minutes left, then holding the ball in the closing seconds as UConn's fans chanted "MVP! MVP!"

"I understand that we're not the blue blood of Kentucky and I have great respect for that and Indiana and traditional programs, but for the last 20-something years we've been a part of that," Calhoun said. "And we want to continue to be a part of that."

This was a big step.

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