Calhoun’s presence helps Huskies’ cause

A still-aching UConn coach Jim Calhoun probably could have used a cane Tuesday as he paced the sideline during his team’s first-round win over DePaul in the Big East tournament.

Good thing he didn’t. Good thing for the refs.

“I couldn’t walk with a cane on the sideline, the officials might have gotten hit,” the 69-year-old Calhoun — just a week removed from major back surgery — joked after the Huskies’ 81-67 victory.

For much of Tuesday’s first half, Calhoun staggered along the bench as his team thoroughly outplayed DePaul, but still managed to keep the lowly Blue Demons in the game.

By the midway point of the second half, though, Calhoun had returned to his chair, where he sat stoically, resting his back as the Huskies laid down the hammer to improve to 19-12.

The defending national champs didn’t need Calhoun to do much as they bolstered their NCAA tournament resume with the win. Just his presence at Madison Square Garden was enough.

“I’m trying to coach this basketball team, and that’s my job,” he said. “But it’s also my love, and that’s why I came back to my basketball team — because I felt I owed them something.”

Tuesday’s win was just Calhoun’s second game back after invasive back surgery to repair a painful case of spinal stenosis — a diagnosis that challenged doctors for nearly three weeks as they debated the best way to fix it.

UConn went 3-5 while Calhoun was on the mend, but he returned Saturday, just five days after surgery, to lead the Huskies to an emotional regular-season win over Pittsburgh.

For Calhoun, Tuesday’s win was as satisfying as the pain has been excruciating.

“It’s a hole in my back, and it’s sore,” he said. “But there’s nothing like a win, or now two wins, to help that.

“When you see a team in times of struggle and see them lose five games by whatever we lost them by, and in every sort of way, then I think if you feel you can do anything, maybe just being a fresh voice coming back, (then you do).

"I owed it to them if I could get back, and I did. The last two games have been very fulfilling.”

Calhoun’s presence unquestionably has lit a fire under a down-and-out Huskies team, which suddenly looks like it could do some damage in this tournament — and maybe begin to live up to its lofty preseason expectations.

“When we go into the tournaments, we always say it’s a new season,” said UConn guard Jeremy Lamb, who led the Huskies with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting Tuesday.

“We just go in the tournament and try to work hard. … We’ve been preparing all year for this time, and now that it’s here, we’re going to give it all we’ve got. Don’t look back, just take it a game at a time and try to get a win.”

Last year’s Big East tournament started much the same way. UConn, after a 9-9 run through conference play, entered the tourney as the No. 9 seed, and it was a blowout win over DePaul that sparked a record-breaking run of five wins in five nights — culminating with a Big East championship game win over Louisville.

The Blue Demons, 12-19 with Tuesday loss, held a three-point lead early in the game, and they answered nearly every UConn run with a streak of their own to keep things competitive.

UConn hit its first seven 3-point attempts of the game, including three from Lamb, who scored 15 of Connecticut’s first 30 points. But DePaul hung tough and trailed by just seven points at the eight-minute mark.

By the half, Connecticut had extended its advantage to 13, and a 15-4 run to start the second half gave UConn its largest lead at 61-37, effectively ending the game.

“I admire our guys’ fighting spirit, and I’m really disappointed it’s over,” DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. “But we lost to a better team today.”

Connecticut will play No. 8 seed West Virginia at noon Wednesday, a rematch of a Jan. 9 meeting in Hartford, Conn., that the Huskies won 64-57. The Huskies are likely in the NCAA field of 68 — especially given their schedule, which was among the toughest in basketball, and their five wins over the RPI top 50.

A win over the Mountaineers, another top-100 team, would set up a matchup with No. 2 — and the Big East’s top seed — Syracuse on Thursday and should cement Connecticut’s spot as an NCAA tourney participant.

Despite Tuesday’s lowly opponent, this was a confidence-booster for the Huskies as they look ahead to those games.

“The most noticeable thing last Friday when I walked in was that I couldn’t believe some of the guys who are really good didn’t have the kind of confidence they needed,” Calhoun said. “But I think they’re getting better.”

“It’s a very emotional time, as you could imagine, for all of us, but it’s been a different kind of season.

“But through it all, and sort of by separation, I realized how much I cared about these kids. Sometimes you hold up the trophy, and sometimes you don’t hold up the trophy, but they’re your kids.”

And sometimes you play hurt for them, cane or no cane.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner