It was the ugliest and most gut-wrenching game of their incredible, unprecedented run, but the Connecticut Huskies kept their season alive Saturday night in Anaheim.
Next stop: Houston and the 2011 Final Four.
The Huskies, led by Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, held off a resilient Arizona squad in the dying moments for a 65-63 win in the West Regional Final.
The win puts UConn and coach Jim Calhoun into the Final Four for the fourth time in the program's history, all since 1999. It's the second straight tournament appearance in which the Huskies reached this stage, having won the West in 2009 (missed tournament last year).
The Big East champs certainly love the West. UConn is now 4-1 all time in the Elite Eight when placed in the West Region. All their Final Four appearances are from the West and, as a result, both of their national championships (1999 and 2004) came as the West winner.
Huskies senior Donnell Beverly, junior Kemba Walker and walk-on Kyle Bailey are now the first UConn players to ever reach two Final Fours as a member of the Huskies.
Connecticut has now won nine straight games, all in tournament play. The incredible run began when the Huskies made history by winning five games in as many days to win the Big East tournament.
No team in any conference has ever done that to win a conference tournament. Not only that, the run was completed against DePaul, No. 22 Georgetown, No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 14 Louisville.
After making history to win the nation's most challenging conference tournament, the Huskies have now knocked off Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State and Arizona en route to the Final Four, where they face the winner of Kentucky and North Carolina. A win would put them against either Kansas, VCU or Butler for the national championship.
"Never did I imagine a team winning nine games in tournament play in 19 days," Calhoun said. "These brothers, these young guys, have just given me a thrill beyond compare. Our march in the past nine games, I haven't experienced anything like this."
The Elite Eight game was never easy for the Huskies.
After a trying test against San Diego State, UConn went back and forth with the Wildcats, who were led by Derrick Williams with 20 points and Jesse Perry with 14.
Arizona came out of the gates ready to play, going up by almost 10 before the first media timeout. UConn was stuck at one point off a foul shot and could not find the hoop.
However, the Huskies never back down and they came back firing. Walker finished 20 points as the Huskies leader proved once again that he can get it done at the most important times.
Freshman Jeremy Lamb was the unsung hero again. The lanky star dropped 19 points and was crucial to UConn getting back in the game late on.
The Wildcats almost pulled off an incredible win, as both Derrick Williams and Jamelle Horne had three-point opportunities at the death. Horne's hit the front of the rim and bounced away and the Huskies watched the clock strike 0.0 and the celebration was on.
"The second one, I thought it was definitely going in," Lamb said. "When he missed it, I looked at the clock and saw zero-zero, and I just went, 'Whooooo.' It's the best feeling I've ever had."
To forewarn the nation, this is a UConn team that could be title contenders for the next several years. This is a young team, featuring five regularly playing freshmen (two others that have not been playing, one is redshirted, but both will see time soon) and two sophomores, plus a talented recruit in Ryan Boatright ready to feature next season. It's amazing how early on this team has matured.
"I definitely expected to play in the NCAA Tournament and have a chance at the Final Four when I chose UConn," Lamb said. "I just didn't know it would happen this fast."
Enjoy, Lamb. You earned this chance. Make the most of it. They may not be a Cinderella, but UConn is a pleasant surprise and an incredible story.