When theball came to Kemba Walker Thursday night, virtually the entire Bucknell defense followed. A guard traced his every move. A post player moved up to seal his path to the lane. Another guard closed in from the side.
"They want to throw two, three guys at me," Walker said with a dismissive smile. "Pffft … no problem."
Walker spoke amid another kind of attention, one he's just as familiar with. And with the typical horde of media surrounding him in the UConn locker room, he went on about the attention that truly matters: How teams try to stop him at all costs, and how that's not going to work.
Walker had a career-high 12 assists as the third-seeded Huskies defeated No. 14 Bucknell 81-52 in their NCAA Tournament opener at the Verizon Center before 17,706. Walker also had a game-high 18 points, but the way he ran the offense, finding ignored teammates for open shot after shot, was what made this a runaway.
"You load up on Kemba," said Jim Calhoun, who picked up his 850th career victory, "and you're going to …"
Be broken down. That's how it played out on this night, anyway, as the Huskies (27-9) advanced to face sixth-seeded Cincinnati Saturday night at 9:40.
Roscoe Smith had a career-high 17 points and Jeremy Lamb added 16. Those two freshmen, and others, sent an early message to Bucknell and came up with a sustained string of answers that led to Calhoun saying, "I thought we were brilliant, offensively."
They were really good in all areas, outrebounding Bucknell 49-23 and holding the Bison to 31.4 percent shooting. The Huskies, who have won six in a row for the second time this season, shot 48.5 percent. Smith made 7 of 13 shots and Lamb 6 of 9.
UConn was bigger, taller, faster and deeper. Alex Oriakhi had nine points and 12 rebounds. Shabazz Napier added seven points. Walker also had eight rebounds, finishing just two boards shy of the seventh official triple-double in NCAA Tournament history. His 12 assists are a UConn NCAA Tournament record.
"Every time I came off a pick, basically he had two guys on him," Oriakhi said. "They didn't know that we have other players on the team that could actually score and are very good as well."
The Huskies played a nearly flawless first half and led 39-22 at the break. They opened the second half with a 23-5 run. The lead peaked at 41, when it was 73-32. By the end, walk-on Ben Stewart even had a bucket.
Mike Muscala had 14 points and Bryson Johnson 11 for Bucknell (25-9), which had just one offensive rebound to UConn's 13.
"It's a real risk," coach Dave Paulsen said of loading up on Walker. "We felt like we were going to have to pick our poison. But to give up 13 offensive rebounds, I thought that was more problematic. And then we were stuck on 20 [points] for what seemed like two years. If you're going to beat a team like UConn, you have to score, too. And we were kind of like that football team whose defense is on the field the whole time and the offense goes three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out."
Bucknell decided to try to limit penetration. It didn't matter. Smith had a powerful and-1 dunk early, Lamb hit some open shots, Smith a few more and everything was loosened up. And then Walker was just zipping the ball around to different options, and going on to add 12 second-half points.
UConn made it all look easy. Of course, there will be bigger, taller, faster and deeper opponents in the future, starting Saturday, but this was exactly the springboard the Huskies were looking for. Long after the game, Walker reflected on the early portion of the season, when the offense was based solely on his ability to score.
There were some frustrating times.
"Oh my God, yes," Walker said. "We would put in simple plays and they couldn't even run them, so I was like, 'It's going to be a long year in terms of running offense.' But as days went on, as weeks went on, as months went on, we started to get it, things started to click, guys started to learn different options. It's all working for us now."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun