Motorin’ On

Published 11:18 am Sunday, March 29, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Connecticut often overwhelms opponents with its size and strength.

Harried by the fighting Missouri Tigers, UConn needed something else: speed.

Enter 6-foot-1 freshman Kemba Walker, who matched a career high with 23 points as the top-seeded Huskies held off Missouri 82-75 in the West Regional final on Saturday. UConn earned a trip to Detroit and extended the Big East’s dominance of the NCAA tournament.

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UConn is headed to its third Final Four, where it will meet either Big East rival Louisville or Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State. This trip may have seemed harder than the others, because the Huskies were rocked this week by a report alleging that they violated NCAA recruiting rules.

Then came a duel with Mizzou. But the Huskies kept their poise even as the Tigers erased an early 11-point lead to surge ahead in the second half.

‘‘We took some bumps, we took some bruises, but here we are once again going to the Final Four, and I’m just elated,’’ UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.

Among those banged up was 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet, who bloodied a finger on his right hand scrapping for a loose ball on the floor in the second half. The Big East co-player of the year finished with 13 rebounds but only five points and no blocks, and held a bandage to his hand after the game.

‘‘I’m getting it checked out, but I should be good,’’ Thabeet said.

A.J. Price added 18 points and was named most outstanding player of the West region. But the difference was Walker, who deftly handled the Tigers’ pressure defense.

‘‘I told him he grew up,’’ Price said. ‘‘He played like a man among boys today.’’

When it ended, Calhoun made an exaggerated fist pump and the emotional Huskies (31-4) mobbed each other at center court.

‘‘I can’t lie to you, after the game I actually did cry,’’ said Walker, who went 7-of-9 from the floor and 9-of-10 from the free throw line.

UConn kept their emotions in check when it counted, though, clinching the victory by making all 10 of their free throws in the final 1:02.

The Huskies are still in the hunt for their third national title — the first two went through regionals in Phoenix in 1999 and 2004.

‘‘We do love coming out here,’’ Calhoun said with a chuckle. ‘‘I’m buying a house. I’ll come out here once every five years.’’

While the Huskies are headed for Detroit, the wait goes on for Missouri, which remains one of the top programs never to reach a Final Four.

Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence each had 13 points for Missouri (31-7), which was long on heart but short on rebounds. UConn dominated the boards 47-32.

‘‘Obviously, I hurt for our guys,’’ Mizzou coach Mike Anderson said. ‘‘I thought I could get them to that magical place. Maybe we just ran out of time, a couple minutes.’’

Indeed, the Tigers edged within 68-65 on Justin Stafford’s tip-in with 2:42 to go.

That’s when Walker answered with the shot of the game — an improbable off-balance bank shot as the shot clock clicked toward :00.

‘‘I was turning and turning and turning, and I just kind of threw it up,’’ Walker said. ‘‘It was definitely a big basket. It was a heartbreaker.’’

Said Missouri’s J.T. Tiller, ‘‘It just described what kind of day it was.’’

Stafford scored again, but Price hit a jumper from the lane to push the Huskies’ lead to 72-67, and the Tigers never recovered.

‘‘It does feel like it slipped away,’’ Lyons said. ‘‘That game right there was a game we could have won and should have won.’’

The first meeting between the schools featured a clash of styles. The Tigers, who had scored 102 points on Memphis on Thursday night, wanted a track meet. The Huskies wanted a weightlifting contest.

Early on, it was all UConn. The Huskies easily broke Missouri’s pressure defense and built a 13-2 lead before Anderson called timeout three minutes into the game.

The Tigers regrouped, and on the next possession they drew the first foul on Thabeet, who went to the bench.

It was clear the Tigers weren’t going to go away. And for a few moments it looked like they would be headed to Detroit instead of the Huskies.

Keith Ramsey’s layup off a dish from Tiller capped a 9-0 run and gave Missouri its first lead, 50-49, with 13:30 to play in the game.

Sensing the upset, the University of Phoenix Stadium crowd of 18,886 began to roar. Two nights earlier, second-seeded Memphis had wilted in the face of the Tigers’ pressure. But the Huskies are a stouter group, toughened by a winter in the rugged Big East.

‘‘They’ve got some experienced guys that wouldn’t get rattled,’’ Anderson said.

The dejected Tigers walked off to an ovation from the black-and-gold-clad throng that had made the trip from the Midwest. The Huskies mounted a hastily erected stage to accept the West region trophy, but they dispensed with the traditional net-cutting ceremony.

That one will have to wait at least a week.

‘‘We just chose not to cut down the nets,’’ Price said. ‘‘Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to cut them down somewhere else.’’