Edgar Sosa and Kemba Walker, a pair of electrifying NYC playground-bred guards, got their baller's teeth cut while playing for the Gauchos on the AAU circuit.
Gaucho gym, rich basketball real estate (see Strickland, Rod or Marbury, Stephon for more on the program's OG's), can be pegged as a bandbox joint with one-sided stands in an Ampitheater-type atmosphere.
Sosa and Walker put in countless hours at this very venue during their primary period of youth hoops prosperity, when both carved out the niche of tough-ass guards tailor-made for the physical, pulsating-paced Big East.
Sosa and Walker continued to push each other's development during their stay at Harlem-based Rice High School, a perennial power. Walker says he was tutored by elder statesmen Sosa during a special sophomore season.
That was Sosa's senior year, when the 6-foot-2 sniper operated Mo Hicks' high-powered offense featuring Curtis Kelly, a crafty 6-foot-8 southpaw who's now at Kansas State. That infallible Rice squad posted a 25-5 record, taking the world by wildfire en route to an NYC Catholic championship.
And so four years later, the intriguing Kemba v.s. Sosa subplot was thrust to the forefront during Sunday's UConn v.s. Louisville game. BOUNCE (www.bouncemag.com) was in the building to catch the frenetic-paced affair.
Walker's game is certainly not confusable with Sosa's.
Walker has always been the kid who breaks out the track shoes, running the floor with cheetah-quickness. Walker's long had a penchant for dishing out flashy passes (his nickname is "E-Z Pass") and attacking the rim in hellacious style, busting out acrobatic layups.
Sosa, though cut from the same blink-quick, run-and-gun fabric as Walker, has garnered more rep as the three-point marksman who could score the pill in a variety of ways. Sosa quickly embraced the high-volume scorer within him, erupting for 31 points in an NCAA tournament game against Texas A&M his freshman year.
At the beginning of the season, Walker said that filling A.J. Price's shoes (a daunting task considering Price's leadership and cool, calm, composure for the clutch) at the point wouldn't be too tall of a task considering he learned how to lead under his Gaucho counterpart.
So, for the second consecutive game, Walker went eyeball-to-eyeball with one of his former Gauchos running mates. Last week, E-Z Pass got the better of West Virginia guard Truck Bryant, whom he won back-to-back Nike Peach Jam championships with on the grassroots circuit.
Walker surely dominated the game. The UConn sophomore dropped a career-high 28 points, buried four treys, and knocked back his freebies at a 10-for-10 clip.
Yet it was Sosa who won it, as the Louisville senior's game-winning layup with eight ticks remaining propelled the Cardinals to a 78-76 thriller on Senior Day at Gampel Pavilion yesterday.
Walker tried to answer, tearing into the lane and ascending to the cup, only to have his shot swatted by Samardo Samuels as time ran out.
Could UConn, which started the game on an 11-2 run and led by as many as 12 in first half with their laissez-faire, free-wheeling offense as thrashing as it's been this season, prevented Sosa's end game heroics?
"Just give him a jump shot," Huskies' coach Jim Calhoun said of the most sensible prevention plan.
"You can't give him a layup."
Sosa has certainly undergone a rollercoaster ride under the tutelage of the ultra-reputable Rick Pitino. In a rock-dotted course of four years, Pitino has witnessed his Spanish Speedster grow from lackadaisical defensive liability to standout senior.
"He's going to make the right play," said Pitino, whose clashes with Sosa certainly haven't gone unnoticed.
"I believe in him. He goes under-noticed and underappreciated..Kemba Walker as well, he's hell on wheels."
One of Walker's main flaws his been his spotty jumper. E-Z pass has been pigeonhold as an oft-noticed jay-lacking scorer since his Gaucho days, but Walker has helped shed that Jimmy-free image this season.
Opening up his jump shot and extending it beyond the arc, Walker shot the rock at a 7-for-16 clip and rained timely three-pointers.
"Kemba kept us in the game," said Calhoun. "The control of the basketball was not very good, it ultimately costed us the game... You can't keep throwing the ball at the other team."
The Cardinals capitalized on UConn's torrent of turnovers (22 overall, 14 in the second half). Louisville outscored UConn by a 19-9 margin on points off turnovers.
After owning the backboards in the first half, outboarding the 'Ville by a mammoth 28-11 margin, UConn was buried under an early three-point barrage in the second. Louisville was buoyed by the Huskies' sloppy ball control and began to dictate the tempo.
Jared Swopshire sparked Louisville's offensive fireworks in the second.
Swopshire, the wiry 6-foot-8 forward, drained back-to-back three-pointers to culminate an 11-3 spurt that gave Louisville a 53-48 edge with 16:47 remaining.
Sosa scored just six points on 2-of-8 shooting, but he dished out a game-high six dimes and committed just one turnover.
The grandeur of the three-ball was evident throughout.
Indiana-bred shootist Kyle Kuric, Swopshire, and freshman Peyton Siva led Louisville's slew of snipers, who connected on 10-of-24 from the great beyond.
"We weathered a gigantic storm," explained Pitino.
"We certainly didn't want to give up 65 points. This is a special victory because it's not easy winning at Connecticut, at Syracuse, at West Virginia."
Calhoun, whose Huskies are leaning towards cracking a tournament bid, was asked if he could assess the landscape of the topsy-turvy, evenly-matched Big East.
"I could give a shit about the landscape of the Big East," said the loquacious, longtime, Hall of Fame coach.
"The only landscape I know is Gampel Pavilion tomorrow and Notre Dame (March 3)."
Walker won the individual battle, Sosa's driving layup in the final eight ticks won the war.