“It was like a movie,” former UConn shooting guard Jeremy Lamb told Boston.com. “It really was like a movie.”
The 11-game stretch, starting with five wins in as many days, that propelled the 2010-11 Huskies to a Big East title and a national championship was thrilling. For those watching, it may have been unexpected or unlikely. For those on the team, it was unbelievable — but not because it was unthinkable.
“Any game we went into, we always felt like we had a chance to win — even if they were ranked higher or whatever it was,” Lamb said. “We always knew we had the best player in the country in Kemba [Walker]. We had some great role players around him. The way our team was set up, it was just perfect.”
To start the season, Connecticut wasn’t included in Sports Illustrated‘s list of the top 68 teams in the country — a snub the players took to heart. The unranked group, complete with seven freshmen, proved their worth at the Maui Invitational in November and eventually rose to No. 4 in the country.
“This team won, as much as anything else, with enthusiasm, will, and chemistry,” coach Jim Calhoun said. “Everybody knew what they were doing and everybody was willing to sacrifice for each other. It was kind of unusual. I think their youth played into it because they didn’t know any better. This is how you play college basketball.”
UConn continued to earn win after win, and eventually improved to 17-2, before closing their season with a slew of conference battles. The tantalizing momentum came to a screeching halt when Connecticut dropped four of its last five games, falling to the ninth seed in the conference tournament and No. 21 in the nation.
Amidst the slump, Calhoun was simultaneously coping with the deaths of his sister-in-law and his longtime best friend. The program was also handling the aftermath of a series of recruiting violations. The NCAA levied several sanctions against UConn, including a three-game suspension for Calhoun to be served next season.
But Connecticut carried on — and the fun began.
The Huskies played on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday the week of the Big East tournament. Calhoun called not earning a first-round bye “a slap in the face,” and his team responded accordingly by cruising past DePaul and Georgetown. Next up was the infamous quarterfinal matchup against Pittsburgh.
With the scored tied at 74 in the closing seconds of the second half, Walker hit an immortalizing step-back jumper at the buzzer to win the game. For Calhoun, the shot marked the moment when he knew his team could accomplish anything.
“The day we beat Pittsburgh, Kemba makes this great move to shake the center down,” he said. “He falls, and all of a sudden, it was just special. I could tell we were going to overcome almost anything. I said it that night, and little did I know, we won the next two games, and of course, we won six more in the national championship.”
After Pittsburgh, Connecticut beat Syracuse and Louisville to claim the program’s seventh Big East title. They entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed and defeated Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona, Kentucky, and Butler en route to their championship trophy. While some analysts and sportscasters anticipated fatigue, Calhoun wasn’t concerned.
“You’re talking about 19, 20-year-old kids,” he said. “People said, ‘Well, they’ll get tired.’ You may get tired studying. You may get tired working. How can you get tired playing a game you love? You can’t. They might have said we were tired. We weren’t.”
As he noted, “you never grow tired of winning.”
Their schedule was demanding, but their minds were determined.
“I just remember everybody saying we couldn’t do it,” Walker told Boston.com. “Each and every game, they said there’s no way we could win another game, there’s no way we could win another game. But we did anyway.”
Calhoun said he kept asking the team, “You guys want to go home and practice? Or you want to keep playing in front of thousands of people, have everybody love you and see how great you are? Or you want to have me go kick the hell out of you in practice?” Of course, the players said, “We’ll stay here, Coach. We’ll do this.”
The game-winner against Pittsburgh seems like a natural pick for the run’s most memorable moment, but Calhoun, Lamb, and Walker all say it’s hard to pick out one defining piece of the journey. Its entirety is what stood out to them.
“The whole thing was emotional,” Calhoun said. “Once we got it going, we were like a train whose wheels started to move. Then they started to move quicker, and it seemed like we were going faster, and then it seemed like nothing could stop us. No matter what situation we were in, we were going to find a way to win. The train’s going full speed and you can feel it.”
The conference title and national championship weren’t the only byproducts of the team’s historic season. A superstar was also born.
Calhoun said he recognized Walker’s full potential halfway through the season — even before the great run. “Kemba became special,” he said. Calhoun lauded Walker’s leadership and his ability to “get his own shot any time he wanted,” but noted what defined him more than anything was his passion for the game.
“He loved the game as much as anybody I’ve ever coached,” Calhoun said. “That’s a big deal. Not only do you have to love the game, but you have to show it. He showed he loved the game with that beautiful smile, his enthusiasm, and all the different things that he did. His teammates loved him. He was that kind of kid. His coaches loved him. Not every great player has that. He had that.”
Walker’s demeanor, however, didn’t take away from his ruthless moves on the court. As Calhoun put it, “Kemba was a velvet sword.” The point guard would most certainly cut you, you just wouldn’t feel it.
When asked to describe his approach to the game, Walker said it’s fairly simple: “Just have fun, smile, and enjoy the moment.” It’s a mantra he still keeps in mind as a member of the Charlotte Hornets — and one that is paying off. Walker recently surpassed retired shooting guard Dell Curry to become the team’s all-time leading scorer.
“I try to be myself as much as possible,” he said. “I try to inspire my teammates in any way possible. I try to go out there and play hard and really enjoy the game.”
Seven years later, Walker and Lamb are actually teammates on the Hornets. The pair says every now and then they’ll reminisce and exchange a series of ‘I can’t believe we did this’ or ‘I can’t believe we did that.’ Unlike Calhoun — who says he relies on the mental pictures he’s captured — the two say they enjoy re-watching some of the games from their title run.
“I don’t get chills, but I still get nervous like I haven’t seen the games before,” Lamb said. “It’s always fun just watching them over and reliving that excitement and success.”
Asked what he would tell himself in college, knowing what he knows now, Lamb said he would advise his younger self to eat healthier and take care of his body more. As for what Walker would say to 20-year-old Kemba?
“I wouldn’t tell him nothing. We won it and we finished strong.”