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UConn wins Big East tourney opener

UConn's Jeremy Lamb shoots over DePaul's Mario Stula

UConn's Jeremy Lamb shoots over DePaul's Mario Stula during the opening round of the Big East Tournament. (Mar. 8, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun has been around long enough to know that it's the time of year that matters, not the time of day. As unaccustomed as his team was to playing the very first game in a five-day tournament -- at noon, no less -- it didn't stop it from thinking about playing in the last one.

That's the way it goes in March. The Huskies' 97-71 win against depleted, last-place DePaul Tuesday will not go into a Big East Tournament time capsule. Pretty, it was not. Ninth-seeded Connecticut had the indignity of playing in the first round instead of getting one or two byes that the conference big guys get. Worse yet, Calhoun's team (22-9) spent the early afternoon failing to pull away from a team that went 1-17 in conference play and didn't have its best player, freshman center Cleveland Melvin, who was out with a sprained thumb.

None of that was important afterward. Take it from the coach who had just won his 299th Big East game. "You don't say 'how,' " Calhoun said. "You say, 'Are we playing tomorrow?' And yes, we are playing tomorrow."

Tomorrow becomes today quickly at the tournament and the Huskies will be up early again for another noon game against a much tougher opponent, Georgetown. But who knows? Connecticut has been on the other side of upsets so much that it believes anything can happen.

"It's been a while since we had a win here . . . six overtimes, a Gerry McNamara shot or whatever," Calhoun said, referring to excruciating losses against Syracuse in 2009 and 2006, respectively. All told, Connecticut had not won a Big East Tournament game since 2005.

Jeremy Lamb was in junior high back then, which gave him a fresh perspective. The freshman scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half and was huge in a 15-0 run. Lamb made a jumper, assisted on a basket by Charles Okwandu that turned into a three-point play, then made his own three-point play.

Still, DePaul (7-24) clawed back within seven in the second half. Freshman Brandon Young finished with 20 points, forcing Connecticut to rely on its star, Kemba Walker, who had 19 of his 26 points after intermission, and big man Alex Oriakhi, who was kept out of the starting lineup to help him kick a slump. He wound up grabbing 19 rebounds.

"Definitely, I haven't been playing my best and I definitely wanted to make it up to my teammates," Oriakhi said. "And I went after the basketball."

And his team gets to come back, early, for at least one more day.

New York Sports