UConn flexes muscle for first signature win
Jerome Dyson was well aware UConn hadn’t beaten anyone of significance.
Kemba Walker knew the Huskies needed this one to “get back on the map.”
Even Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel’s father admitted that his son’s team finally got a win against somebody.
Sure, the Huskies had the nation’s top-rated schedule — according to the RPI. But what exactly does that mean when you come up short against every tournament team you’ve gone up against: Duke, Kentucky, Georgetown and Pittsburgh — in addition to dropping games to Cincinnati and Michigan?
“This one was huge. I’m not going to lie to you,” Walker said. “We just beat the No. 1 team in the country.”
To be exact, it was the soon-to-be former No. 1 team in the country. Texas was already coming off a road loss to Kansas State, so the Longhorns are a lock to drop out of the top spot on Monday when the new Top 25 is released.
But regardless of whether Texas is ranked first, third or fifth, this is the kind of résumé victory that will make sure UConn doesn’t have a repeat performance of 2006-07 — when the Huskies were left out of the NCAA tournament field.
Even the fans comprehended what this one meant when they made a rare rush of the court after the final buzzer sounded.
“I didn’t know which direction we were going,” Dyson said. "It’s been tough for us. It could have gone either way.”
For the first 20 minutes and from the opening possession after the teams came out of the locker room, it looked as though a seventh setback would be added to UConn’s résumé and the Huskies were taking a hiatus from the Top 25.
The Huskies had 16 first-half turnovers — a half-dozen courtesy of Walker — and didn’t grab a single rebound in the first five minutes, but somehow trailed by only eight points at the break.
Then, Walker woke up and Texas’ defensive-minded guard trio of Dogus Balbay, Avery Bradley and Justin Mason all took turns — without success — trying to contain Dyson, who finished with 32 points.
With their 67-year-old head coach Jim Calhoun watching from home while on an indefinite medical leave of absence, the Huskies have now won two in a row after suffering three consecutive losses that put them in jeopardy of not making the Big Dance.
After the 88-74 victory, acting coach George Blaney put Calhoun on the speakerphone with the team in the locker room.
“He told us that no one can question our heart now,” said Stanley Robinson, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds. “That we’re a great team and can beat anybody.”
Calhoun’s medical condition remains unclear, but the players are under the impression that Blaney will be returning to his understudy role sooner rather than later.
“He was excited,” Robinson said of Calhoun’s spirits on the phone. “Everyone was yelling, and we were all excited to hear his voice. We told him to get well soon and hurry up and get back.”
When Calhoun does return, he’ll come back to a team that has renewed hope after the victory against a Texas team that has lost two straight but is still regarded as one of the elite in the nation.
“This is at the top,” Dyson, a senior, said of where this victory stands in his nearly four-year career.
Dyson’s freshman season came and went without any postseason. His sophomore season ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to San Diego. And a year ago, his season was cut short when he tore his lateral meniscus midway through the 2008-09 campaign.
With Dyson, Walker and Robinson, the Huskies have three guys who can stack up to just about anyone.
However, the Huskies’ depth is questionable.
Calhoun has been raving about Ater Majok since he arrived in Storrs more than a year ago, but the long and talented freshman hasn’t shown much since he became eligible in December.
Calhoun was reluctant to play Majok major minutes, but Blaney anticipated he’d be a difficult matchup for Texas widebody Dexter Pittman — and threw Majok on the court for a career-high 31 minutes.
Majok’s production on the stat sheet appeared mediocre with five points, six rebounds and four blocks, but he was critical in Pittman soaking up splinters on the bench for the majority of the contest because of foul trouble.
This win certainly quiets some of the skeptics — this one included — who continued to ask who the Huskies had beaten.
The list of victims — William & Mary, LSU, Harvard, Notre Dame, Seton Hall and St. John’s — wasn’t exactly Murderer’s Row.
But with their Hall of Fame coach home resting in an effort to return to the court, all that changed.
“This one looks good tonight,” admitted UConn athletic director Jeff Hathaway. “But it looks even better in March.”