LAHAINA, Hawaii — Time and again Monday, gracefully and almost effortlessly, Kemba Walker darted through the lane and a host of would-be Wichita State defenders, finding all sorts of ways to pull UConn along in a game that nearly got away so many times.
"He was a conductor," coach Jim Calhoun said. "A maestro."
The Huskies clearly have one of the best players in the nation, and his will and skill were on display as they opened the Maui Invitational with an 83-79 win over Wichita State at the Lahaina Civic Center.
Walker, forced to sit out all but four minutes in the first half because of two early fouls, set a Calhoun-era UConn record by scoring 29 of his 31 points in the second half, leaving both opponents and teammates in awe. He scored 15 of UConn's final 19 points as the Huskies, who twice trailed by nine in the second half, stormed back behind his dazzling play.
The 31 points were the second-most Walker has scored, following 42 Wednesday against Vermont. He finished 8-for-16 from the field and 14-for-15 on free throws — and he did it with an increasingly sore back.
"I know he had 42 last game," Calhoun said. "No comparison. He just took the game over. They couldn't find an answer for him. He was absolutely magnificent. He showed [his teammates] what will is all about, what competiveness is all about."
Walker's 73 points are the most in back-to-back games in the Calhoun era, and his 91 are the most by a UConn player under Calhoun in the first three games of a season.
"He never ceases to amaze me," said Alex Oriakhi, who had 12 points and seven rebounds. "He put us on his back once again and won the game. What more can you ask for? He gets to the rim at will, so why even call a play? He's just a great player who keeps on breaking records."
The Huskies (3-0) face No. 2 Michigan State or Chaminade in the semifinals tonight at 7. The winner advances to Wednesday's final.
"We're fortunate to win," Calhoun said. "But we also worked to win. You don't stay in a game like that when your offense is poor and the other team is draining threes on you … and not have some stuff about you. We out-willed them down the stretch."
The Shockers (1-1) had the Huskies on their heels, leading 56-47 and 60-51. Wichita State ran a crisp offense and made 10 of 24 threes, but not enough to deny Walker. UConn spread its offense, doing anything it could to create space in the lane for Walker.
"I just wanted to win so bad," Walker said before receiving treatment for back spasms.
Walker's three-pointer with 2:46 remaining tied it at 76 and then made a couple of free throws for a two-point lead. After Wichita State regained the lead on Graham Hatch's three-point play with 2:01 left, Walker drove, spun and hit a fadeaway to give UConn the lead for good.
After Jeremy Lamb drew an offensive foul on Garrett Stutz, Walker made another similar shot, a pull-up with 42 seconds left for a three-point lead. Toure Murry, who led the Shockers with 19 points, missed a three-pointer and Oriakhi added a free throw to produce the final score.
"He's a veteran, and he knows a lot of things most guards don't even know about the game," said guard David Kyles, who had four three-pointers and 18 points for Wichita State. "He can tell when you're relaxing on defense. It's hard to stay in front of him."
It wouldn't be accurate to say Walker won this game alone. He picked up his second foul with 14:14 remaining in the first half and Calhoun, sticking with his longstanding rule, sat him for just about the rest of the half, bringing him back for the final 25.5 seconds.
By that point, Walker's unproven supporting cast had shown some moxie. UConn, which often had four freshmen on the court, kept it close. Roscoe Smith banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer, giving the Huskies a 33-32 halftime lead. And then UConn had its guy back, and he put on a show.
"I just wanted my teammates to keep the game close, and that's what they did," Walker said. "I'm extremely proud of those guys."