NEW YORK -- A first-round Big East tournament win against DePaul shouldn’t change anyone’s mind about Connecticut.
It was, after all, DePaul, the No. 16 seed in the Big East tournament.
But there was something different about the Huskies on Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, their second game with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun back on the bench.
Their spirit was back, and there was energy among all the players that had been noticeably absent during recent games. It might not translate into a repeat of last season’s historic run, when the Huskies won five games in five days to win the title, but at least they have a chance.
As for Calhoun, back on the bench for the second game after missing a month after having back surgery, two consecutive wins have eased some of the pain and discomfort he’s still feeling. Calhoun was in such a good mood after the Huskies’ 81-67 win that he actually thanked the media for the way in which it handled his absence.
“When you see a team, and you see them lose five games by whatever we lost by, in every sort of possible way, then I think if you feel you can do anything, maybe just being a fresh voice coming back, whatever, with these guys, then I owed it to them if I could get back,’’ Calhoun said. “And I did, and obviously the last two games have been very fulfilling.’’
Kemba Walker is in the NBA. Without him, expecting a similar sprint through the tournament isn’t fair. The closest thing the Huskies have to Walker returning was the presence of his mother, Andrea, behind one of the baskets near the UConn bench. She said Kemba told her to show up and support the Huskies, so she did. She said she has a ticket for all five days after coming up from her new home in Charlotte, N.C., back to her old spot in the Bronx.
Walker’s inspired play wasn’t needed Tuesday. But to advance deeper in the tournament, the Huskies must have Jeremy Lamb be a dominant presence. Lamb scored 17 in 19 first-half minutes, finishing with 25.
“I’m not trying to be Kemba,’’ Lamb said. “Everybody wants to lead their team to a championship, but I’m trying to do what’s best for this team.’’
The Huskies won despite Shabazz Napier being in foul trouble. That allowed Ryan Boatright to flourish a bit more as a playmaker. Roscoe Smith, Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi had their moments at both ends of the court. They will all have to raise their game against West Virginia in the next round if they want to ensure a meeting with top seed Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
When asked what it meant to be back on the bench, Calhoun was reflective.
“It’s my love,’’ Calhoun said of coaching the Huskies. “That’s why I came back to my basketball team, because I felt I owed them something.’’
Calhoun didn’t feel the same discomfort as he did after Saturday’s win against Pitt. He took Sunday off, but was at practice Monday. He said he would take it easier Tuesday afternoon. But he’ll be back at it Wednesday.
“It’s sore, but nothing like a win or two wins now to make that [go away],’’ said Calhoun.
“Coach came back,’’ said Lamb. “So there are a lot of things that go into it. But yeah, I can say we’re getting momentum.’’