HOUSTON — Kemba Walker is considered by many to be the best player in America. Yet, as Connecticut’s game against Kentucky wore on Saturday night at Reliant Stadium, Walker wore down.
The sensational guard took a jumper with the score tied at 42-42, but the shot was off the mark. Alex Oriakhi was there to make sure the Huskies didn’t come away empty-handed on the possession. The sophomore forward/center soared above the basket and threw down a jam that electrified the record crowd of 75,421.
The dunk gave UConn a two-point lead and helped make the difference in a 56-52 win against the Wildcats in a riveting Final Four battle.
“He shot and I know I get my points off of the offensive glass,” Oriakhi said. “It missed perfectly and I was able to slam it home. The ball bounced my way.”
Oriakhi scored eight points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the win as he helped catapult the Huskies (31-9) into the national final against Butler (28-9) on Monday night here in Houston.
And while Walker turned in another stellar performance, something he has done this whole month, starting with the five-day run in the Big East tournament, he didn’t hesitate to give credit to his teammate.
“He brings energy and has a great presence in the post,” Walker said. “As long as he has a big-time game rebounding and stopping the other team’s big men, we always seem to come out on top.”
Oriakhi certainly raised his game a notch on the defensive end of the floor, particularly in his effort to slow down senior star Josh Harrellson. Harrellson has been averaging nearly 15 points per outing in the tournament but scored only six points on this night. He pulled down eight rebounds as well.
The thing is, Kentucky (29-9) shot only 33.9 percent from the field and was 9-of-27 from 3-point range. The Wildcats were out-rebounded 32-22 on the defensive glass.
“You can’t go to war without your warrior,” Huskies head coach Jim Calhoun said. “We needed physicality in the middle and he brought that. He did a good job of helping us neutralize Harrellson.”
Oriakhi came through with a clutch layup as well late in the second half. His shot with 6:30 remaining put the Huskies ahead 50-48. UConn never trailed again, although it needed to pressure-packed free throws from freshman Shabazz Napier to seal the deal.
The fact that Oriakhi was able to play a pivotal role in the success of the Huskies and put them in a position to win their third national title is a sign of the hard work he put in during the offseason.
“Before the season, I worked extremely hard in the weight room and in the gym as well,” Oriakhi said. “It has definitely worked out for me. I’ve had some bumps in the road along the way but I am the type of player who always stays positive.”
And now Oriakhi and his teammates will have a chance to climb to the top of the college basketball mountain on Monday night against a Butler team that was one 3-point shot away from winning it all a year ago.
The funny thing is that Oriakhi was actually rooting for Butler last season while watching the championship game. He won’t have the same love for the Bulldogs this time around.
“I wanted to win a Big East championship, and I did that,” Oriakhi said. “I want to win a national championship, and now that I have the opportunity, it’s a good feeling. Butler is a great team, but we just have to keep doing what we have been doing during the tournament.”