Sleepless in Storrs: Thoughts of national title keeping Huskies wired

UConn guard Kemba Walker speaks to the media before practice on Tuesday at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Walker and the Huskies take on Kentucky in the national semifinals Saturday.
UConn guard Kemba Walker speaks to the media before practice on Tuesday at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Walker and the Huskies take on Kentucky in the national semifinals Saturday.

A case of Final Four-induced insomnia is spreading through the UConn basketball family.

Just the thought of being two games away from winning the program's third national championship keeps some Huskies awake at night.

"To be honest, I couldn't even sleep last night," sophomore Alex Oriakhi said. "Kemba (Walker) said the same thing. My father told me he couldn't sleep. This is really crazy to be this close. … We're too close to lose, that's how I feel."

UConn met with the media Tuesday afternoon and then practiced at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies leave for Houston, the site of the Final Four, today to continue to prepare for Saturday night's national semifinal showdown with Kentucky at Reliant Stadium.

Since returning home Sunday after winning the West Regional championship in Anaheim, the Huskies have tried to keep life as normal as possible. Not an easy task when the student body is saluting your accomplishment at every turn.

"It's been fun, actually," Walker said. "I've been walking around and people have been saying good job and all that, and people have been screaming out their cars."

Walker is one of two Huskies - senior Donnell Beverly is the other - with previous Final Four experience. They were reserves on the 2009 team that lost in the national semifinals to Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit.

The Final Four experience was overwhelming the first time, from the team bus receiving a police escort, to media demands, to playing in front of 70,000-plus fans in a huge stadium.

"I'm definitely more prepared (this time)," Walker said. "My freshman year, I'm not going to lie, it was tough. It was just so much for me and the team overall. By time the game came, I was exhausted."

Walker and Beverly, the team captains, will offer some advice to their young teammates once arriving in Houston. Thursday and Friday are jammed full of events, including practice and interview sessions.

They'll tell them to treat it as just another game while knowing that's difficult to do, and to make sure they get enough rest.

"You want to go out there and say you're still shooting from the free throw line, it's still a 3-pointer, you're still dribbling and playing defense," Beverly said. "But there's going to be (70,000) in the arena. Once you get going, you'll be fine. But in the beginning, you're going to be nervous a little bit because you're not used to playing in front of a crowd like that.

"This stage is the biggest stage and that's where you want to be."

Fortunately for the Huskies, they have an experienced tour guide in coach Jim Calhoun, who's developed a successful routine over the three previous Final Four trips, two of which resulted in national championships (1999, 2004).

Calhoun prefers to mix pleasure with business during the postseason. In 2004, the Huskies took a boat ride down the River Walk in San Antonio. They went to a spring training baseball game while in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1999.

But it was basically all business in Detroit in 2009, mostly because of the location of the venues.

Last week the Huskies had a team bowling outing while in Anaheim, Calif., last week.

"We've had a pretty good record in the NCAA tournament," Calhoun said. "One of the reasons for that is I consider NCAA postseason play always to be a bonus, always to be a reward for a great season, and not as some death march that we have to win every single game.

"It's a great reward to go places, win games and visit places and enjoy yourself. … We will do things. We will go out to eat and enjoy the Final Four experience when we first get there.

"Then with about 48 hours to go, maybe 36, then we'll turn our mind-set to getting ready to win the game. If you don't enjoy this journey, there's something wrong with you."

Now if only Calhoun had a cure for insomnia.


At Reliant Stadium, Houston

National Semifinals

Saturday's Games

Butler (27-9) vs. Virginia Commonwealth (28-11), 6:09 p.m. (Chs. 3, 12)

Kentucky (29-8) vs. UConn (30-9), 40 minutes after first game (Chs. 3, 12)

National Championship

Monday, April 4

Semifinal winners (Chs. 3, 12)


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