POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 25, 2010
LAHAINA » Connecticut sent a postcard from Maui addressed to the rest of the college basketball world.
It read: "We're still UConn."
The Huskies put together an effort worthy of veteran coach Jim Calhoun's finest teams, eviscerating No. 8 Kentucky 84-67 in the championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Tournament MVP Kemba Walker went for 29 points on 10-for-17 shooting and infused the Lahaina Civic Center with his third virtuoso performance in three days.
UConn entered the tournament as a decided underdog in a stacked field. The Huskies (5-0) needed a 29-point second half from Walker to get by Wichita State in the first round, then outlasted No. 2 Michigan State in the semifinals.
Last night was a revelation. The Huskies completely demoralized the Wildcats with a 21-2 run to seize control at the end of the first half, and effortlessly staved off every comeback attempt in the second.
The Huskies, a traditional hoops power, weren't expected to contend for their league title this season with a 10th-place preseason pick. But the beast from the Big East continued to make the experts look foolish with 57.7 percent shooting from the field and nearly 90 percent at the free-throw line.
"That's who we are. We wanted to show the world, we're still UConn," said Walker, a junior guard, who continued the best start to a season in modern school history. His 90 points in three games was three off the tournament-record 93.
Sophomore forward Alex Oriakhi dominated the interior with 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, as UConn earned Maui titles in consecutive trips to Hawaii (the last came in 2005). Oriakhi was also named to the all-tournament team.
After the semifinals, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called Calhoun "a sandbagger" for consistently underplaying his young team's talent and potential. Last night, freshmen Niels Giffey and Shabazz Napier combined for 26 points and complemented Walker and Oriakhi perfectly with shooting and defense.
"I couldn't be prouder of the effort they put forward," Calhoun said. "This is a great step for us. It's letting people know that we are Connecticut, have been Connecticut for the past 20-something years. We think we're a pretty good basketball team."
What Calhoun was most proud of was Walker's leadership on one particular play during the huge run. He'd just hit back-to-back 3-pointers and at that point, if it were "NBA Jam," he'd be spouting flames. But on an ensuing fast break, he faked a 3 and passed to Jamal Coombs-McDaniel for an easy hoop underneath.
Conversely, Kentucky coach John Calipari lambasted his team in the postgame press conference for its "selfish" play. It was true; the Wildcats (4-1) rarely moved the ball around in the halfcourt and settled for difficult drives.
"We played against each other. They played for each other," Calipari said.
The lone bright spot for Kentucky was freshman phenom forward Terrence Jones, who continued his outstanding play with 24 points in 27 minutes.
UConn negated everyone else. Frustration was etched on the faces of point guard Brandon Knight (3-for-15 shooting) and Deandre Liggins (3-for-10). UK shot 36.7 percent.
The rest of the all-tourney team was Chaminade guard Steven Bennett, Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas and Jones.
The Huskies seized control with the game-breaking run over the final 7 minutes of the first half, made possible by early foul trouble for the multifaceted Jones, who is considered a top draft prospect.
When he checked out with his second foul, his team faced a 7-point deficit with 9 minutes left in the half. When he finally got back in for the second period, Kentucky was down 50-29.