Boston Celtics: Reliving Kemba Walker’s historic March Madness run

(Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images) /

In 2011, Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker took UConn on the greatest run in March Madness history. Let’s relive his iconic Big East tournament and title.

In 2011, The University of Connecticut Huskies finished the regular season 21-9, good enough to be ranked number 19 in the nation. UConn and junior guard Kemba Walker went .500 (9-9) in conference play and were ranked as the number nine seed in the conference tournament. This was important because only the top eight seeds got first-round byes, therefore, UConn would be forced to win five games in five days in order to win the Big East tournament.

UConn was limping into the tournament. They had lost four of their last five games and were struggling to find Walker help on the offensive end. The thought of winning five games in five days in arguably the best conference in college basketball was a pipe dream.

To open the tournament, Kemba Walker‘s 26 points led UConn to an easy victory over DePaul. Walker then followed up his performance with 28 points to lead UConn to a double-digit win over a ranked Georgetown team. UConn was beginning to pick up some momentum, but their toughest test was yet to come.

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UConn’s third matchup was against the University of Pittsburgh. At the time, Pitt was ranked as the number three team in the nation and were the top seed in the Big East. Pitt and their senior point guard Brad Wanamaker were poised to put a stop to the surging Huskies. Kemba Walker had different plans, hitting one of the most iconic buzzer beaters in college basketball history to keep UConn alive.

Walker’s 24 points and 5 assists led UConn to the thrilling upset over Pitt.  More importantly, Walker’s UConn teammates were starting to give him the help he needed. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier combined for 27 points in the win. Suddenly, UConn was a legitimate threat. Walker was on a historic run, but he could not do it alone. Lamb and Napier played vital roles in keeping UConn’s head above water for the majority of the second half. But when it was time for a big shot, it was Walker who was called and it was Walker who answered.

Even after UConn’s incredible win over Pitt, they still had to buckle down and win two more games to secure the Big East title. In the semi-finals, Kemba Walker was incredible. He scored 33 points, totaled 12 rebounds, and had 6 steals in an overtime win over a loaded Syracuse team. In the finals, Walker scored 19 points in a tight three-point win over Peyton Siva and the Louisville Cardinals.

UConn had pulled off a near-impossible task of winning five games in five days against four ranked opponents. Walker was brilliant in all five games, averaging 26 points per game for the tournament, which unsurprisingly earned him the Big East tournament MVP. UConn was clicking on all cylinders at the perfect time.

Even after their historic run, UConn was given an unfavorable draw in the NCAA tournament. They were given a three seed and were placed in the West region, that featured Duke, Michigan and Texas. And these are just the teams they avoided.

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After running Bucknell out of the gym in the round of 64, Kemba Walker poured in 33 points to beat Cincinnati and advance UConn to the sweet 16. Awaiting them was Kawhi Leonard and the two-seeded San Diego State Aztecs. In a seven-point win, Walker scored 22 of his 36 points in the second half to hold off San Diego State.

Kemba Walker and UConn continued to roll, and with wins over Arizona and Kentucky in the elite eight and final four respectively, they rolled all the way into the national championship game. Here, UConn met a Brad Stevens-led Butler team in the midst of a cinderella run of their own. In a low scoring affair, Walker’s 16 points put an end to the eight-seeded Bull Dogs and cemented his college basketball legacy forever.

UConn’s national championship victory was the 11th consecutive win for the Huskies. They won 11 games in 27 days, on the road to the greatest run in March Madness history. Walker was at the center of it all.

Kemba Walker averaged 23.5 points per game during the NCAA tournament and was named the tournaments most outstanding player. He was untouchable for more than a month and always got better when the moments got bigger. The best example of this, other than the buzzer-beater to defeat Pitt, was his second-half performance against San Diego State. It has been largely overlooked with time, but it was one of the most impressive halves of basketball in tournament history.

San Diego State had just stormed back to take a four-point lead with just under 10 minutes to go in the second half. Walker took it upon himself to change the tides and proceeded to score 14 straight points for UConn to reclaim the lead. San Diego State was a really good team and they could simply not slow down Walker.

A few months later, the Charlotte Hornets, Bobcats at the time, selected Walker with the ninth pick of the draft. Walker made the playoffs twice with Charlotte, but they were never real contenders. Walker’s Bobcats were swept by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the first round of the 2014 playoffs. A few years later, the Hornets pushed a Miami Heat team who had just lost LeBron James to Cleveland, to seven games in a competitive first-round series.

All in all, Kemba Walker has yet been given the opportunity to play meaningful playoff basketball since his run with UConn. The chance to compete in big games seems to drive Walker, as he admitted his free agency decision was influenced by where he had a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Kemba Walker will now have his shot to live up to his “Cardiac Kemba” nickname that was born in March of 2011. The Boston Celtics will finish as a top three seed in the eastern conference with the chance to go toe to toe with anyone. But this time, with Brad Stevens as his coach and Brad Wanamaker as his teammate.

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