WASHINGTON -- The most improbable of Big East champions is flying the league's banner in the NCAA tournament, even as the contingent from the supposedly oh-so-powerful conference keeps shrinking.
The Big East finally landed a team in the round of 16 on Saturday night, but only by beating up on itself. Kemba Walker scored 33 points, including 16 over the final 10 minutes, as Connecticut knocked off conference foe Cincinnati 69-58.
"Watching all the games, all the Big East teams were getting knocked off one by one. It did worry me a little bit," said UConn center Alex Oriakhi, who had 11 rebounds as part of the Huskies' 35-25 advantage on the boards. "But I'm happy we got to the Sweet 16 and hopefully we'll get more wins."
Third-seeded UConn (28-9) advanced to play second-seeded San Diego State in the West regional in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, while sixth-seeded Cincinnati (26-9) became the seventh of the Big East's record 11 NCAA tournament teams to be eliminated. Another one will exit Sunday when Marquette plays Syracuse in the East regional.
UConn will join the Marquette-Syracuse winner and possibly Notre Dame (which plays Florida State on Sunday) as the conference's only teams to advance to the regional semifinals.
"I think all of us root for each other," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "It was really hard for me to watch the Louisville game. I watched the end of the Pitt game and have never seen anything like that in 39 years of coaching. But we think we're going out there to represent UConn, and obviously we're a Big East team.
"The conference has beat itself up in many, many ways. Twenty-five years in the Big East, I don't have a tattoo or anything with the Big East on it, but nevertheless that's my neighborhood."
It only makes sense that the Huskies are one of the teams still alive, given their unprecedented five victories in five days to win the Big East tournament. Calhoun said his team still has the momentum from that busy week, and it made a difference late in the game against Cincinnati.
"All of a sudden you just pull away because you believe you're going to win," Calhoun said. "When you've won five, six, seven and played really good teams, that happens."
Walker, despite hurting his wrist in the first half and his thigh in the second half, was the difference down the stretch. The score was tied at 45 with 10 minutes to play before UConn ended the game with a 24-13 run. Among the highlights: Walker's steal and assist to set up Roscoe Smith's dunk that pushed the lead to eight with 1:35 to play.
Walker finished 8 for 20 from the field and 14 of 14 at the free throw line in his 10th 30-point game of the season.
"We didn't want to foul him," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "He was 14 for 14 from the foul line. That was the difference in the game. You've got to make people make shots. I think Coach Calhoun could have got 30 if we had given him 14 free throws."
Rashad Bishop scored 22 points to lead the Bearcats (26-9). The loss brought to a close a Cincinnati season in which the school completed a long road to return to the NCAAs six years after the messy departure of longtime coach Bob Huggins.
"It was a great journey," said Bishop, one of two seniors in the starting lineup. "We've got Cincinnati back, built it back up to where it used to be, so we're proud of that."
It was the first time in NCAA history two teams from the same conference have met this early in the tournament -- a necessity because so many Big East teams made the field -- and the familiar foes put on a competitive show, led by Walker and Bishop.
Walker had an adventurous game, to say the least. He scored the first six points in a 15-3 run that gave UConn a 24-20 lead, then was sent crashing to the floor by Justin Jackson while attempting a fast-break layup.
Walker landed on his right side and immediately began shaking his right wrist, while Jackson was called for an intentional foul. Walker kept shaking his wrist throughout the rest of the first half and had the wrist taped when he emerged after the halftime break. He soon took the tape off during a timeout and showed no ill effects as he sank a smooth pull-up baseline jumper for the Huskies' first points of the second half.
Walker also came up with a slight limp after getting kneed in the thigh by Yancy Gates with 9:43 to play in the game with the score tied at 45. Walker stayed in the game to make both free throws to put his team ahead for good, then hit a 3-pointer on the next possession. He later split a double team and sliced through a crowded paint for a layup, hardly looking like a player who was getting banged up.
"I didn't let it affect me. I just played through it," Walker said. "I just wanted to win. I could deal with all the bruises later."