UConn's magical title run recalled 10 years later by Kemba Walker, Jim Calhoun, Alex Oriakhi, others

Kemba Walker is a star with the Boston Celtics, but he still wears a UConn jacket nearly every day. In part to show off his Husky pride and in part, perhaps, to needle his coach.

“I can’t get away from it,” Brad Stevens quipped.

Before Stevens started coaching Walker in Boston, he coached against him in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game on April 4, 2011, at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Walker, of course, led UConn to a 53-41 win that night over Butler, whose head coach was Stevens.

It wasn’t the prettiest game ever played; the teams combined to miss 87 of the 119 shots they attempted. But UConn’s defense was exquisite, holding the Bulldogs to a mere 12 field goals and 19 percent shooting, a record low for a national title game.

Hearst Connecticut Sports · Former UConn players Charles Okwandu and Alex Oriakhi talk 2011 run

The victory, its 10-year anniversary on Sunday, capped the Huskies’ remarkable 11-game win streak, from an unprecedented and unsurpassed five wins in five nights at the Big East Tournament to a remarkable roll through the NCAA tourney as a No. 3 seed.

“Was it magic? Yeah,” recalled Jim Calhoun, who was in his 25th and penultimate season as UConn’s Hall of Fame head coach. “You could see it on the floor, you could start feeling it. It’s a funny thing to see. We, at times, felt invincible.”

Through it all were indelible and career-defining memories: “The Stepback” against Pittsburgh, Jeremy Lamb’s long arms and litany of steals, Shabazz Napier’s freshman brashness, Derrick Williams’ missed 3-pointer, Alex Oriakhi’s sublime title-game performance, Kawhi Leonard and John Calipari vanquished along the way.

And, of course, Kemba, Kemba, Kemba …

“To be honest, I’m in awe,” Walker said earlier this week. “I just can’t believe it’s 10 years already. It just seems like yesterday. Especially now, bringing back a lot of memories watching the March Madness tournament, seeing how these kids are competing and how bad they want to win a national championship. There’s no better feeling. The feeling is pretty unbelievable.”

Not that Stevens and Walker share their memories about that championship game all that much. Kemba lets his apparel speak for itself.

“He doesn’t really want to talk about the game, either,” Stevens noted. “It wasn’t exactly a work of art by either team, but he definitely wants to smirk and show that he won. He reminds me of that, even in his own little way, just by wearing that jacket every day.”

IT STARTED IN MAUI

The seeds of UConn’s run to a third national title in 13 seasons were actually planted a few months earlier in November at the Maui Invitational. On consecutive nights, the Huskies knocked off Wichita State, No. 2 Michigan State and No. 8 Kentucky to notch the tourney title.

“Winning the championship in Maui,” recalled Charles Okwandu, a 7-foot senior center on that team, “I thought we could do everything.”

Meanwhile, the “Legend of Kemba” was born. Walker scored 31, 30 and 29 points in those games, hitting one huge shot after another in a remarkable preview of things to come. There was a big 3-pointer, followed by a game-winning jumper in overtime a month later at Texas — a game better known for Roscoe Smith’s ill-advised full-court heave with 11 seconds left in regulation. There were big shots and huge games throughout the season — even though Walker wound up losing out to Notre Dame’s Ben Hansbrough for Big East Player of the Year and to BYU’s Jimmer Fredette for national Player of the Year.

Jim Calhoun, left, and Kemba Walker led UConn on a magical run to the 2011 men's basketball national title 10 years ago.

Jim Calhoun, left, and Kemba Walker led UConn on a magical run to the 2011 men’s basketball national title 10 years ago.

Mel Evans / Associated Press

“And anytime they showed Jimmer Fredette (on TV), Kemba was like, ‘I’ll kill him,’” Oriakhi recalled. “He was just an assassin, man. He was a killer.”

Still, UConn finished with a mere 9-9 record in the Big East, tied for ninth place. This wasn’t your typical ninth-place finish. The Big East was a monster that season, sending a record 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament.

But the Huskies lost four of their final five regular-season games, and entering the Big East Tournament, there was thought (probably wrong) that UConn had to at least beat DePaul in its first-round game to secure a bid to the Big Dance.

The Huskies easily handled DePaul, then Georgetown the next night. Then came bruising Pittsburgh, the regular-season champ. Enter “The Stepback.”

“I knew he was gonna score that,” Okwandu said of Walker’s buzzer-beating 15-footer that left poor Pitt big man Gary McGhee crumpled on the floor, forever posterized. “He always made that in practice, and I was like, ‘This is the time he’s gonna do this move.’ And he did it.”

The Huskies beat Syracuse in overtime the next night. Were they tired? Yes.

“But when you know what’s on the line,” Oriakhi noted, “you’re like, ‘I’ll be tired later.’”

Indeed, Oriakhi got a text during the week from Jeff Adrien, the bruising forward who helped lead the Huskies to the Final Four in 2009: “You can be tired tomorrow, bro. Today, no. Be tired tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” the Huskies won their fifth game in five nights, 69-66 over Louisville to complete the remarkable run through Madison Square Garden.

After that game, the team got a fearless prediction from one of its guards — not Kemba, but Kemba’s freshman understudy.

“Shabazz was like, ‘We’re gonna win a national championship!’,” Oriakhi recalled. “In my mind I’m like, ‘Take it easy, tiger. Let’s just enjoy this.’ I wasn’t doubting us, but I never like to think too far ahead. But Shabazz called it.”

“He was a freshman,” Oriakhi added, “but his swagger, his confidence was like a senior. He was definitely fearless.”

‘ONE MISS AWAY ...’

Walker’s brilliance and Napier’s confidence aside, the Huskies were a bit fatigued heading into the NCAA Tournament.

“If you asked me on Tuesday, if we were gonna win the whole thing, I would say no,” Okwandu confessed. “Because mentally we were getting tired, guys were getting cramps and everything.”

UConn went out and dusted Bucknell in its opening-round game, then fellow Big East foe Cincinnati in the round of 32.

“Once we beat Cincinnati,” Okwandu recalled, “we were like, ‘OK, I think we can do it.’”

A trip to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, California, brought a matchup with 34-2 San Diego State, coached by former Michigan “Fab Five” coach Steve Fisher and led by future NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard. The Huskies held Leonard to 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting and won 74-67, though it wasn’t easy.

During the game, Okwandu busted his lip and went back into the locker room. A trainer greeted him with a huge needle.

“Charles,” the trainer said, “Calhoun wants you in the game, you have to do this.”

UConn's Kemba Walker reacts at the end of the Huskies' NCAA Tournament semifinal victory over Kentucky on April 2, 2011, in Houston.

UConn’s Kemba Walker reacts at the end of the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament semifinal victory over Kentucky on April 2, 2011, in Houston.

Eric Gay / Associated Press

Such was life playing for Jim Calhoun.

The Elite Eight brought Arizona and 6-8 forward Derrick Williams, one of the top offensive players in the country. With about eight seconds left and the Huskies leading 65-63, Williams got a good look at a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Okwandu was guarding him.

“I knew it wasn’t going in,” Okwandu recalled, “because I was playing great defense on him. I’m not trying to be cocky, but I was. I know he was a great shooter, I know he was going to be a (No. 2) pick in the NBA. I was like, ‘You’re not gonna make this shot.’”

He didn’t. Arizona got the rebound and kicked it to Jamelle Horne in the corner, who got another good look at a game-winning 3.

Oriakhi was nervous.

“Kemba hit so many game-winners on others, you never know when karma’s coming right back to you. That’s just how the game works. It could have easily happened. We were one miss away from a whole changed story. He could have made it, and almost did.”

Again, he didn’t. On to the Final Four.

COMPLETING THE JOURNEY

Awaiting in Houston was Kentucky, coached by Calhoun’s nemesis, John Calipari, and looking for revenge from Maui.

UConn had another incentive to beat the Wildcats, according to Okwandu.

“That was a game we really wanted to win, because they had (freshman guard) Brandon Knight. He came to visit UConn and we were really excited, we talked to him and said, ‘Listen, if you come here, you might change our season for us.’ But within two or three days, he switched his mind and ended up with Kentucky. So, we were like, ‘No, we need to win this game.’ But I’m glad we had Shabazz and Lamb on our team.”

Napier hit a pair of free throws in the waning seconds to clinch the victory.

The championship game against Butler on April 4 wasn’t a work of art, as Stevens noted. Unless you’re a fan of absolute defensive domination.

“We were down (22-19) at halftime,” Calhoun recalled, “and the only thing we talked about was: ‘We’ll score. We’re gonna put another 30 up,’ which is about what we did. But I said, ‘If they don’t score, they can’t beat us.’ It was the most bothered shots, contested shots, blocked shots of any team I’ve ever had. I’ve had Emeka (Okafor) and all those other guys ... great, great shot-blockers. But that game … the kids went out and just did it.”

And while Stevens may not talk about the game with Walker, he has discussed it with Calhoun.

“No one ever played defense on the college level like that,” he told Calhoun. “You just locked us down. I was hoping not necessarily to make shots, but to get shots off.”

Members of UConn's 2011 national title team included (left to right) Charles Okwandu, Donnell Beverly, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Kemba Walker. Photo by Brad Horrigan/New Haven Register-03.29.11.

Members of UConn’s 2011 national title team included (left to right) Charles Okwandu, Donnell Beverly, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Kemba Walker. Photo by Brad Horrigan/New Haven Register-03.29.11.

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A remarkable run was done. UConn went 14-0 that season in tournament games when a loss would have ended its chance for a title.

“We weren’t great, but we were good at the right things we needed to do,” Calhoun said. “I think that’s the big thing. And the biggest thing, on the court — I’ve heard about Danny (Manning) & the Miracles at Kansas, but I don’t think that’s comparable to what Kemba did. Because his wasn’t for six games, his was for 11 games.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

The following season, with Walker in the NBA as a lottery pick, UConn added Andre Drummond to the mix but never quite jelled, falling to Iowa State in a first-round NCAA tourney game that marked Calhoun’s final game on the UConn sidelines.

Oriakhi, who had 11 points, 11 boards and four blocks in the title game, clashed with Calhoun that season and transferred to Missouri the following year, where he played well and became a second-round NBA draft pick. He’s played overseas and in the D-League over the past decade, and since 2014 has lived in Texas, where he’s still recognized for that title run.

“A few weeks ago,” he reported, “a guy came up to me in my apartment complex and said, ‘You played with Kemba and Lamb!’”

He’s also buried the hatchet with Calhoun, though the two haven’t had a chance to communicate.

“I don’t really hold grudges,” Oriakhi said. “I just move on with my life.”

After a few years playing professionally, Okwandu, a Nigerian native, has moved back “home” — to Connecticut. He’s a special education teacher and assistant boys basketball coach at Avon High. Lamb is in his ninth NBA season, with the Indiana Pacers. Napier (along with Giffey and Tyler Olander) won a second national title in 2014 and played the past seven years in the NBA. He’s now on the Puerto Rican national team.

Roscoe Smith? Whereabouts unknown. And, of course, there’s Kemba, a four-time NBA All-Star and now the Celtics’ point guard, replete with a $141 million contract and that UConn jacket he wears every day.

“Man, 10 years,” Walker said last week. “It’s pretty crazy, when you think about it. Time flew by. Those were some great memories.”

david.borges@hearstmediact.com