UConn freshman plays beyond his years
No one had witnessed such a dormant half out of Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb during the Huskies’ tournament two-step the past four weeks. At intermission of the biggest game of his life, the wondrous freshman who had gone from anonymous to outstanding in the span of a month had yet to score.
The Norcross, Ga., native had been averaging 16.8 points per game during the Huskies’ 10-game win streak across the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Now he had one less bucket than unheralded teammate Tyler Olander. How to account for the silence of the Lamb?
“I got a little timid,” he said. “I wasn’t really aggressive.”
Timid? Lamb spent nearly half the opening 20 minutes on the bench — this in part due to foul trouble — but he was a spectator even when on the court. At halftime UConn coach Jim Calhoun reminded him that this NCAA championship game was different than all those he had watched on TV.
“Coach got into me, just saying, ‘Let’s go, pick it up,’ ” says Lamb.
Lamb’s father, Rolando, had once knocked Calhoun out of an NCAA tournament. Now Rolando’s son was threatening to contribute to another Calhoun demise. To be fair, none of the Huskies was shooting well, as evidenced by UConn’s 19 first-half points.
“If I told you what I told the kids at halftime, I’d probably make one of those YouTube clips like when I had that line about my salary,” said the 68-year-old coach, alluding to his infamous “Not a dime back!” declaration.
The game itself was a microcosm of the season for Lamb.
“Early in the season Jeremy didn’t have much confidence,” said teammate Kemba Walker, for whom self-assurance has never been a problem. “He didn’t have much an idea what his role was. But Jeremy, he’s a hard worker. He’s in the gym every night. After he has a bad game, he’ll go and shoot. Coach will tell him, ‘Jeremy, don’t shoot.’ But he’ll still go and shoot.”
This time, of course, Calhoun told Lamb exactly the opposite. The Huskies ran their first set play of the second half for Lamb, finding him looping off a screen for a shot on the elbow. The shot missed, but Lamb was fouled and buried both free throws.
Less than two minutes later Lamb made a 3-pointer, the Huskies’ first after five first-half misses. Then a steal by Lamb that led to an uncontested breakaway dunk, the first, if not only, balletic moment in this sandlot football game.
Then Lamb hit a soft jumper. After that came the finisher: Lamb slipping around a back pick and being found by classmate Shabazz Napier from atop the key for an alley-oop dunk. The basket gave Connecticut a nine-point lead, an insurmountable margin in this strangest of games. At that point Lamb personally had outscored the Bulldogs 11-6 in the second half.
“Lamb is a great player,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens. “Sometimes he can just raise up over you and shoot it.”
No matter how big the moment over the course of this tournament, Lamb’s placid demeanor never changed. As the Huskies were waiting to cut down the nets, Lamb waited patiently behind teammates who had never seen one minute of action during their glorious 11-game win streak. When it was finally his turn, the reticent southerner circumspectly ascended the ladder. He snipped the twine and then hastily climbed down. It was almost as if Lamb felt sheepish having ascended to such a great height so soon.
The truth is, Lamb belongs.
“I think in the future,” said Calhoun, “you’re going to see Jeremy Lamb be one of the best players in all of college basketball.”
He already is.