It's clear that nothing fazes Kemba Walker. The more demanded of him, the more he certifies the belief that he's capable of just about anything.
Walker had 33 points Saturday night in Washington as third-seeded UConn defeated No. 6 Cincinnati 69-58 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. In pushing the Huskies into the Sweet 16 with another come-with-me performance, Walker also had six rebounds and six assists and made all 14 of his free throws.
Along the way, he faced constant pressure from perimeter players tracing his every move and post players leaving the paint. That's nothing new. Neither is this: Walker took many hard fouls.
One came from Justin Jackson, who caused him to land awkwardly on his wrist after a dunk attempt in the first half. Walker also turned the corner on a drive and met the hulking Yancy Gates hip-to-hip. Walker yelled, limped around the court for about 20 seconds and then, of course, made both free throws to break a 45-45 tie. On the next possession, he hit a three-pointer.
"That's just what I've been doing all year," Walker said. "Trying my best to force the issue to get fouled, and I was able to get fouled. I didn't let it affect me. I just played through it. I just wanted to win. Deal with the bruises later."
Ho-hum. The grimaces so often become grins. Bags of ice and accumulating victories cure all.
UConn (28-9) advances in the West Regional to face No. 2 San Diego State (34-2), which outlasted No. 7 Temple in double overtime for a 71-64 victory in Tucson, Ariz. The game will be Thursday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. The arena sits on property that features 130 palm trees and is about a two-hour drive from the San Diego State campus. It will be stuffed with Aztecs fans. UConn will be in road blues.
"We've been in those situations before," Walker said. "It's tough, but we want to go to the last game."
And since UConn will ride a seven-game winning streak into this game, the Huskies must now be supremely confident, right?
"We've been confident," Walker said, surprised the question was even asked.
There might not be a UConn player who has had a greater total package of gifts than Walker, whose belief is leading this team as much as his skill. He was named one of four finalists for the Naismith national player of the year award Sunday, joining Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, Nolan Smith of Duke and Jimmer Fredette of BYU. When Saturday's game was in doubt, as it was several times, Walker urged teammates to focus on defense, demanded freshmen pay attention to detail, and took over. Afterward, coach Jim Calhoun got into talking about players who need only one name.
Ray, Rip, Caron, Emeka, Ben. And Kemba. He has played on and off the ball, with Shabazz Napier offering important direction, and been at the heart of everything this team has accomplished.
"He's starting to edge up (on the list of UConn greats) on what his impact is on his teammates," Calhoun said. "During the timeout when (the Bearcats) finally caught us and went ahead, he's really going after the young kids. I'd be a fool not to allow the guy they respect so much to really get on them about winning this basketball game. ... And all of the sudden we just pull away. When you've won five, six, seven games and played really good teams, that happens."
Here's the plan now: Play four more games. Win them all. Fredette's Cougars handed San Diego State its only two losses of the season. The Huskies will get on a plane with every belief that they will hand the Aztecs a third.
San Diego State, which had never won a tournament game before Thursday, has deep talent and a coach, Steve Fisher, who won a national championship at Michigan. Kawhi Leonard, a 6-foot-7 forward, averages 15.6 points and 10.6 rebounds. Another forward, 6-8 Malcolm Thomas, averages 11.4 points and 8.1 rebounds. D.J. Gay leads the backcourt at 11 points a game.
"They're as athletic as any Big East-type team, without question," Calhoun said. "They're skilled and they're a team that clearly has high-quality athletes and has won. ... We happen to have a super player, in my opinion the best player in America. In a San Diego State (and) Big East teams, there isn't much difference, and hopefully, maybe, Kemba will make the difference in that game."
(c) 2011, The Hartford Courant. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.