By JOHN MARSHALL, AP Basketball Writer
HOUSTON – Jeremy Lamb wasn’t at the top of Jim Calhoun’s recruiting wish list. The Connecticut coach had his eye on another Lamb: Doron Lamb, along with his future Kentucky teammate, Brandon Knight.
The lanky guard with the long arms turned out to be a nice consolation prize.
A viable 1A option to Kemba Walker over the final month of the season, Lamb provided another big lift with his star teammate struggling to find his shot, scoring nine of his 12 points during a second-half surge that lifted UConn to a 53-41 victory over Butler on Monday night for its third national title.
“I think in the future, you’re going to see Jeremy Lamb be one of the best players in college basketball,” Calhoun said.
A 6-foot-5 guard with a 7-foot-4 wing span, Lamb spent the first part of the season getting called back to the bench, too inconsistent for Calhoun to keep him in games.
A meek lamb early in the season, he turned into a lion the final month, developing into the sidekick Walker needed to finish off his memorable season and give Calhoun another reason to forgive Lamb’s father for a shot he made 27 years ago.
“Early in the season, he didn’t have much confidence, and he just didn’t know his role on the team,” Walker said. “As things got tough for me, I told Jeremy, ‘You’re going to have to score.’ Once he realized he was going to get open shots, I was going to find him, he started to find the right spots and he started to make shots.”
A native of Norcross, Ga., Lamb wasn’t on anyone’s recruiting radar until he started putting up a few points for a new AAU team. Even then, it wasn’t like he was at the top of everyone’s wish list.
Calhoun always liked Lamb, and, after missing out on Knight and the other Lamb, signed him to play in Storrs. He didn’t get off to a very good start.
Lacking confidence and struggling with the increase in competition, Lamb fell in and out of Calhoun’s good graces, playing 37 minutes one game, 13 the next.
A good listener, Lamb took in his coach’s advice through the tough times and started to figure things out late in the season, building confidence with each game.
It came at a good time.
After dominating early in the season, Walker was getting worn down after having nearly every imaginable defense thrown at him.
The Huskies needed someone to pick up the slack, and Lamb was just the guy.
A 10.8-point scorer during the regular season, he boosted his average to 16.0 in the postseason. Lamb also developed into a clutch shooter, hitting the biggest shots down the stretch against Arizona in the West Regional final and carrying some of the load for Walker during the Final Four.
“Early in the season, I had to get adjusted to the speed and really the strength of the other players, and I didn’t do the little things, like set my man up to come off screens,” Lamb said. “As I started to get better, Kemba started trusting me with the ball, started finding me, I started getting plays run for me, and I was able to knock down shots.”
Lamb’s father, Rolando, sent Calhoun home with a last-second shot for VCU in the 1984 NCAA tournament, which the coach said he forgave after the slender freshman hit two big jumpers against Arizona.
Rolando Lamb certainly can rest easy now after his son helped Calhoun become the oldest coach to win a national title at 68.
The younger Lamb and the Huskies didn’t look like they were going to get there at first.
Struggling like everyone else on the floor, Lamb was a nonfactor in the NCAA title game’s lowest-scoring half in 65 years, going scoreless while taking just two shots. Walker wasn’t hitting, either, scoring seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.
When Walker still couldn’t find his shot early in the first half — he finished with 16 points on 5 of 19 overall — Lamb took over.
Much more aggressive at the start, Lamb hit a 3-pointer to give UConn the lead, then poked the ball away from for a steal that set up a breakaway dunk. Lamb followed with an alley-oop and dropped a bounce pass to Walker for a layup to put UConn up 39-28. The Huskies kept the lead at double-digits for most of the half after that, sending Butler home with another title-game loss and the national championship trophy back to Storrs.
“Starting the season, yeah, there were a lot of doubters,” said Lamb, who made 4 of 8 shots and had seven rebounds. “Right now, it feels real good.”
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