By JIM O’CONNELL, AP Basketball Writer
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Alex Oriakhi has been telling Kemba Walker since the preseason that he is the best player in the country. After Walker’s latest effort, there will be a lot more believers.
Walker went by his man and drove through the lane for a 10-foot floater with 2.5 seconds left that gave No. 8 Connecticut a 61-59 victory over No. 7 Villanova on Monday.
The winning shot capped Walker’s worst shooting performance of the season (6 of 18), but he still finished with 24 points, just off his 25.6 average that is second in the nation.
“I want the ball in my hands being the leader of this team,” Walker said. “I wanted Shabazz (Napier) to run down some time so we would get the last shot. I got it and I knew another guy was going to come and I tried to go before he came, get by my man and get the shot off.”
He made it sound a lot easier than it was.
“They ran two guys at him, so Kemba did what Kemba does,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “He split the two, and got to where he wanted to be. That’s an amazing play.”
Villanova, and all 10,167 people in Gampel Pavilion, knew who was going to get the ball for the last play. It didn’t matter.
“We wanted to double him but he’s so fast we couldn’t catch him,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
“He’s fast but he’s really fast with the ball and he stops on a dime to get space for those shots.”
Corey Fisher, who led Villanova (16-2, 4-1 Big East) with 28 points, tied the game at 59 with two free throws with 22 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Huskies (15-2, 4-2) ran down the clock before Walker started his winning drive inside halfcourt. Fisher’s long shot from around halfcourt was off at the buzzer.
Does Walker agree with Oriakhi about him being the best player in the country?
“I’m good for my team. That’s it,” he said. “All I want to do is win.”
This was the sixth time Villanova and Connecticut played while both were in the top 10 and the Huskies have won four of them.
Oriakhi had 14 points and 12 rebounds for Connecticut, while Jeremy Lamb added 14 points and eight rebounds.
Mouphtaou Yarou had eight points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats, who played without forward Dominic Cheek, who injured his left knee in the last game against Maryland and did not make the trip to Connecticut.
Fisher finished 10 of 22 from the field while the Wildcats were 22 of 60 (36.7 percent).
The Huskies shot 35.7 percent (20 of 56), including 5 of 16 from 3-point range.
Fisher scored Villanova’s final 11 points of the game. His reverse, scoop layup with 1:45 left tied the game at 54. Walker hit a 3 with Corey Stokes right in his face to make it a three-point game with 1:10 to go.
After a Villanova miss, Walker made two free throws with 45 seconds to go. Fisher brought Villanova within 59-57 with 35 seconds left with a 3-pointer. And after Walker missed two free throws, Fisher tied it for the last time with two foul shots with 22 seconds to go.
Stokes, Villanova’s leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, was 0 for 6 from the field and finished with three points.
“They are a very good defensive team,” Wright said of the Huskies. “They did a great job on Stokes so we had to spread them out and get Corey Fisher to make some plays and he did a great job. Thank God for him.”
Calhoun felt the same way about Walker.
“It was one of those games somebody was going to win and as I said to the kids in the huddle, ‘It might as well be us,'” Calhoun said. “Kemba made sure that we did win the game.”
Walker and Fisher are both from the Bronx, N.Y., and remain friendly competitors.
“He’s like an older brother. We grew up together,” Walker said of Fisher. “Going head to head and giving full effort is fun.”
As exciting as the final minutes were, the first half was tough to watch.
Two stats bear that out: Villanova opened the game 3 of 20 from the field. The Huskies closed the half by missing 19 of 22 field goals. Villanova led 22-21 at halftime.
“We couldn’t score on each other. It was a typical old-school bloodbath,” Wright said. “The first half was horrible. We were just banging each other and getting into foul trouble.”
Calhoun referred to the old days about the opening 20 minutes.
“It was a hard-fought, almost a little more old-fashioned Big East game where both teams really went after each other,” he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)