All year long we've said that there are three things that need to happen for UConn to win games. First, Kemba Walker must be his KEMBAWESOME self. Second, Alex Oriakhi must be able to control the paint, do well on the boards and provide some offense. Third, at least two or three of the four key freshmen (Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey) need to play well.
The thinking was this: if the Huskies successfully do all three of those things, they can play with anybody. If they only get two, they're going to struggle. And if they only got one? Well, then may god have mercy.
At least that was the thinking until last nights impressive 76-68 victory over Marquette in Milwaukee. The Golden Eagles shut down Kemba Walker as much as anyone has all year long and foul trouble combined with a constant barrage of double-teams limited Alex Oriakhi to six points and two rebounds.
If you told me yesterday that Marquette would hold UConn's two best players in check in a tough road environment I would have been sure the Huskies were in for another reality-check loss that might have popped the bubble on what is starting to look more and more like a dream season. But yet... that's not what happened. Not at all.
Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Shabazz Napier combined for 46 points, 18 rebounds and seven assists. More importantly, they did it when UConn absolutely needed them to most. They didn't look like freshmen out there, just like a collection of damn-good basketball players who knew that they were good enough to win and didn't want to lose no matter the environment.
The star, of course, was Lamb, who had his best game of the season, pouring in 24 points, many coming at crucial moments. I was in the Bradley Center and, at least to me, it seemed that whenever the crowd really started to get behind Marquette Lamb was there with a run-snapping three or crucial floater to keep the Huskies in it. More importantly, he played with a clear presence and purpose. There were large swaths of the game where he was the best player on the court, and he knew it.
Fine supporting performances from Napier and Smith were a big help as well, and that's to say nothing of Charles Okwandu, who somehow, someway had 10 rebounds on a night where Oriakhi struggled.
The point is this: A month ago this was a one-man team that needed its supporting cast to step up. That's no longer the case. This is just a team now, and a damn good one.