Kemba Walker had, statisically, his least productive game of the season.
The Huskies still won.
These truly are heady times, my friends.
Walker was held to mere human standards in the Huskies' 72-61 victory at The Morgue, scoring a season-low 16 points on 6-for-17 shooting. But this time, Walker wasn't alone, as the UConn star's backing band -- yup, that one -- instead took center stage.
Jeremey Lamb had as many points as Walker but did so in seven fewer attempts, finishing with his third straight double-digit scoring effort. Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith both had 12 points, but also provided much-needed aid in other areas -- Smith's four made field goals all came from behind the arc and the 6-foot-8 swingman also chipped in three blocks; Oriakhi controlled the boards as per usual (game-high 10), added three steals and had the smileiest breakaway in UConn history.
And even players farther down the bench did their parts: Jamal Coombs-McDaniel (2-for-3 from 3) played the spot-up shooter role he was for some reason forced into last season well; despite an ugly shooting night (1-for-6) Shabazz Napier showed he can make things happen (4 assists) and that he can run the show when Cal moves Kemba off the ball; and even Charles Okwandu got his, scoring six points, likely through role-player osmosis.
But perhaps more encouraging than the actual production is the way the players around Walker have begun to sort things out on the floor and find their niches. For the first half of the season, the Huskies played with Kemba as the scorer, Oriakhi as the rebounder and an amorphous blob of youth, purge-surviving veterans and Germans.
Saturday, things began to take shape.
Lamb proved a competent second scoring option -- which allowed Kemba (seven assists) to, at times, fall back into a distributing role -- while continuing to pitch in in other areas. Smith provided another Swiss Army knife performance. Shabazz and Donnell Beverly give offensive flexibility as ball-handlers. Okwandu is tall. And Tyler Olander -- who, thank heavens, didn't attempt a single shot -- is the consummate white hustle player.
What used to be Kemba and the Walkers looked like a team. More importantly, they looked like a UConn team -- winning the rebounding battle (31-28), blocking the ish out of people (six blocks; Vols had one), playing kick-ass defense and celebrating even routine plays with the zest of Huskies past.
Walker is, and will continue to be, the straw that stirs the drink of Awesome Juice that is UConn basketball this season. That was still apparent on Saturday, as it wasn't until Kemba shook off a 0-for-5 start that the Huskies took the lead and began to slowly pull away.
Tennessee was up 24-18 when Walker scored his first point, a free throw, with 5:23 to play. But powered by seven Walker points, on 3-for-3 shooting, UConn went on a 14-7 run the rest of the first half to give it a one-point lead heading into halftime that it would never relinquish.
Still, Walker was a mere cog in the machine while The Others went on a 9-2 run midway through the second that gave the Huskies a commanding seven-point lead.
With that kind of help, Walker and the Huskies can, much to my amazement, be great. And even though UConn's 47.4 percent (9-for-19) 3-point shooting Saturday is likely unsustainable for a team that has hit just a 1/3 of its shots behind the arc this season, the supporting cast proved it has the capability of providing the type of quality aid that could, dare I say, pay dividends in March.
That's a tall, still-unfair task to thrust upon a group that starts three freshmen and gets key minutes from another. But it becomes much more realistic when the other Huskies play like UConn and not Kemba Walker's help.