Big East Week: An all-too detailed breakdown of the Cardiac Kemba Stepback

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This week, Daily Campus Sports remembers the nostalgic highs of the old BIG EAST Conference, while also asking ‘where did it all go wrong?’ This is Big East Week.

Picture this: Madison Square Garden. Big East Quarterfinals. March 10, 2011. UConn and Pitt are tied with the score 74-74. Eighteen seconds remain for one team to make a shot that will send it onto the next round.

That is the scene that precedes one of the greatest moments of Big East Conference history, the Kemba Walker stepback over Pitt forward Gary McGhee. Daily Campus Sports Editors Tyler Keating and Chris Hanna discuss all the minor details of the shot and the celebrations that followed in this all-too detailed breakdown of the Cardiac Kemba stepback, aka the Gary McGhee obituary.

Chris Hanna: I like how there is immediately a heightened sense of danger among Pittsburgh players after the switch on the screen with about 10 seconds remaining on the clock. They all feel like something is about to happen if they don’t help McGhee.

Also, it’s very clear that Calhoun and Kemba got exactly what they wanted on the switch. That’s how the play was drawn up and you could tell the game was over when Walker started waving teammates off for the iso on McGhee with about six seconds remaining. At that exact moment, color commentator Fran Fraschilla said, “he’s got a mismatch,” just in case you didn’t know something big was coming. It was fate.

Kemba starts his first move with about 4.5 seconds left and, if you look closely, you can already see McGhee’s knees trembling in fear. McGhee, a 6-foot-11 big man, bit hard on Walker’s first stepback, which gave the junior UConn guard plenty of separation to take a game-winner if he wanted it. But that was not enough. The legend of Cardiac Kemba wouldn’t be what is today if it weren’t for that second move, that legendary second stepback.

Kemba starts his second move with 3.3 seconds to go and drives in, which actually gives McGhee a chance to recover. But not for long because with just two steps, Walker already has McGhee beat on the drive with 2.8 seconds remaining.

Then Kemba plants his foot and takes his iconic huge stepback that sends McGhee and his ankles to another dimension somewhere on the hardwood. Kemba sets his feet perfectly with two seconds remaining just inside the 3-point line for a shot destined to go in, and McGhee’s failing legs are the picturesque backdrop in Walker’s artistic masterpiece. The rest is history.

Tyler Keating: I love the way that everyone behind the bench stands up in waves. It reminds me of some kind of formal celebration where someone gets honored, and the attendees all sort of look at each other like, “are we standing up for this or nah?” And the answer is always yes.

My favorite: the two people in white shirts, four rows behind the Reese’s logo, that rise together as Kemba does his first crossover. I bet they’re some kind of young and rising finance guys that got the tickets from their company and don’t really like basketball, but went because the seats were so good and they didn’t want to let the boss down. Even those two understood the gravity of the moment.

Who is Calhoun looking at when he does the arm pump? Let’s pretend it was Jim Boeheim and Calhoun was giving him a quick stare-down before he remembered that he had to do the whole handshake thing.

Also, I think his credential is hanging from his belt buckle, it appears, and also bounces around in celebration. Good thing he got one of those, or he wouldn’t have been allowed into the Garden.

Does the guy in the Jonathan mascot briefly make a move to take his mask off when the shot goes in? I think he does. Wanted to celebrate as a human, I guess, but his inner mascot skills kicked in and he went back to being a dog.

Gary McGhee’s ankles, 1988-2011

Hanna: RIP.


Tyler Keating is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.

Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at christopher.hanna@uconn.edu. He tweets @realchrishanna.

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