Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb moves around DePaul's Brandon Young during the...

Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb moves around DePaul's Brandon Young during the first round of the Big East Tournament. (March 6, 2012) Credit: AP

True long shots, UConn's defending national champs softened up Big East straggler DePaul with early three-point bombs and weathered a second-half surge for an 81-67 victory in the conference tournament's first game Tuesday.

Just as a year ago, UConn (19-12) entered Madison Square Garden's annual descent into March Madness with only outside possibilities for a title run. But all figurative and literal distances quickly were cut down by UConn's accuracy beyond the arc: 7-for-7 through the game's first 15 minutes.

And, though a full-scale repeat of running the table through both the Big East and NCAA fields doesn't figure to be in the works, this season at least will go on through Wednesday for UConn, a mere 8-10 in regular-season conference play, against No. 8 West Virginia at noon.

With a three-year NCAA probation hanging over the team, based on improper recruiting inducements and veteran coach Jim Calhoun's "failure to . . . promote an atmosphere for compliance," UConn has struggled to live up to the claim on the players' warm-up jackets -- which announce national titles won in 1999, 2004 and 2011 -- and Calhoun missed eight games in February recovering from back surgery.

When he returned, for the last regular-season game against Pittsburgh on Saturday, "the most shocking thing to me," he said, "was the lack of confidence" his players had.

Not on Tuesday. What resistance DePaul (12-19) provided in the opening moments repeatedly was squashed by UConn's 53.4-percent shooting. Sophomore swingman Jeremy Lamb converted his first six field goal attempts, including three three-pointers, and finished with a game-high 25 points (10-for-18 from the field), with his teammates following his lead.

"I think everything leaks on the rest of the team," Lamb said. "Whether good defense, bringing energy, hitting shots, the whole team is going to want to do it."

By the time DePaul successfully adopted a similar strategy, with sophomore Moses Morgan hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers in the second half, UConn was delivering as many blows in close, stretching its lead to 24 (61-37) with 14:47 to play.

DePaul clawed back to within nine on a Morgan three-pointer, at 70-61 with 7:15 to play, but two Lamb free throws, an Alex Oriakhi dunk and Ryan Boatright's fast-break layup steadied UConn.

Boatright, a freshman point guard, had 19 points and seven assists, and freshman center Andre Drummond scored 12. For DePaul, Morgan and sophomore forward Cleveland Melvin scored 19 apiece.


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