No. 21 UConn downs DePaul 97-71 in Big East opener
NEW YORK (AP)—Hard to believe Connecticut had gone six years since its last victory at the Big East tournament.
Kemba Walker and the Huskies stopped that skid against an overmatched opponent.
The star guard scored 26 points and UConn won a Big East tournament game for the first time since 2005, beating DePaul 97-71 on Tuesday in the opener of a conference showcase loaded with NCAA contenders.
“We had a nice bounce-back game,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “We’re happy to get a win. It’s been a while.”
Jeremy Lamb, playing on a sore knee, had 17 of his 19 points in the first half for the 21st-ranked Huskies (22-9), who got back on track after losing four of their final five regular-season games. No. 9 seed UConn advanced to play Wednesday against No. 22 Georgetown, the No. 8 seed at Madison Square Garden.
UConn beat the Hoyas 78-70 at home on Feb. 16 in the only meeting between the teams this season.
The Huskies had lost six straight Big East tournament games since beating Georgetown in the 2005 quarterfinals, a surprising streak of futility for a school that has won two national championships and six Big East tourney titles under Calhoun, its Hall of Fame coach.
The slide included that classic, six-overtime loss in the 2009 quarterfinals to Syracuse, which handed the Huskies four of those six consecutive defeats.
Alex Oriakhi, left out of the starting lineup following a recent slump, had 13 points and 19 rebounds for UConn, which held a 46-22 edge on the glass against the undersized Blue Demons.
“I just think we look different when he’s rebounding, blocking shots and playing defense like that,” Calhoun said. “He’s been struggling and I keep telling him, ‘It’s simple, go get the basketball.’ It’s never that simple, but it gets in your head. And today he went and got the basketball—a lot.”
Oriakhi tied a school record for rebounds in a Big East tournament game. Travis Knight also grabbed 19 boards against Seton Hall in 1996.
“I definitely wanted to make it up to my teammates and help Kemba out, and I just went after the basketball,” said Oriakhi, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore.
The Big East is expected to set a record by sending at least 10 of its 16 members, including Connecticut, to the NCAA tournament, expanded this year from 65 to 68 teams. The number could reach 11 if Marquette gets off the bubble and into the field.
“I don’t think there’s much of a question the Big East should have 11 teams in,” DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. “As I’ve observed college basketball the last 25 years, it’s the deepest league I’ve seen.”
Lamb’s big first half helped the Huskies build a 45-28 lead at the break, but they got sloppy with the ball against DePaul’s full-court trap after halftime and finished with a season-high 20 turnovers.
The 16th-seeded Blue Demons (7-24) twice cut the deficit to seven midway through the second half, but Walker and his young teammates held off DePaul and won going away.
Walker, a first-team all-Big East selection and a contender for national player of the year, scored 19 points in the second half and left to a warm hand with 2:26 remaining. He also had seven rebounds and five assists.
“Our style of play is to get up and down. That’s what we do,” Walker said.
Brandon Young scored 20 points to lead the Blue Demons, who lost their last six games following their lone conference win of the season at Providence on Feb. 17.
DePaul closed its first campaign under Purnell with 18 losses in 19 games against Big East opponents and heads back to Chicago after a brief postseason trip to Manhattan.
“We’re building a foundation, obviously. Some of our young players did well for freshmen, but they’re hungry to be better. We need them to be better,” Purnell said. “We’ve got basic offensive and defensive systems in, so we’re not starting from scratch as we get the group ready for next year. Experience starts to be our friend instead of inexperience being our enemy.”
The Blue Demons have won only two regular-season conference games in the past three years, though they did pull off an upset of Cincinnati as a No. 16 seed in the first round of the 2009 Big East tournament.
Jeremiah Kelly had 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range and Moses Morgan added 14 off the bench for DePaul, which played its final four games without leading scorer Cleveland Melvin. The 6-foot-8 freshman forward sprained his left thumb in a loss at St. John’s last month.
Five players reached double figures for Connecticut, which set a season high for points. Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Shabazz Napier each scored 11.
Calhoun improved to 300-172 in Big East regular-season and tournament games during his 25 seasons at UConn, joining Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim as the only coaches with 300 league wins.
Lamb, who came in averaging 9.6 points, twisted his right knee in Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame and didn’t practice Sunday. He wore a black sleeve on his knee against DePaul and appeared to run the floor without much trouble.
Lamb, a freshman swingman, averaged only seven points in Connecticut’s previous seven games.
DePaul was coming off a 107-59 loss at then-No. 12 Syracuse on Saturday, the most lopsided game in Big East history.