Huskies blast past Longhorns late
STORRS, Conn. -- Jim Calhoun was immediately put on speakerphone in Connecticut's euphoric locker room after its win over Texas, his voice coming through loud and clear from his home in nearby Pomfret.
This is what he expected when he put together this UConn team. This is what he anticipated when the Huskies scheduled the Longhorns for a home-and-home series beginning in Gampel Pavilion in the middle of the Big East season. This is the type of win that he likely believed would catapult the Huskies toward an NCAA tournament berth."This was a big turnaround for us," UConn guard Kemba Walker said of the Huskies' high-speed 88-74 runaway win over top-ranked Texas on Saturday afternoon. The Huskies were down by eight at halftime and by 11 a minute into the second half, and then blitzed the Longhorns the rest of the way, forcing turnovers (11 in the second half, 19 in the game), converting fast-break buckets, making 3s and engineering an all-out assault on Texas' psyche with a 54-32 second-half run that led to a court-storming, signature win. "[Calhoun] told us that we should have been playing like that," Walker said. "He told us how much heart we have and to keep it up. He sounded good to me and ready to be back." That might be wishful thinking. The Hall of Fame coach with two national championships to his credit is still on an indefinite medical leave after his primary physician demanded he take time away from his job for a "temporary" medical condition. "He was proud of us and you could hear it in his voice," said UConn guard Jerome Dyson. "He wants to be back with us as soon as possible. He sounded good, energetic and happy, probably the happiest he's been in a while."
Dyson wouldn't speculate on when Calhoun would return. No one around the program knows.But what Calhoun has missed the past two games is a renewed commitment to running. It took a half against St. John's before the Huskies started to effectively push the basketball. There was no way Texas would allow UConn to dominate the game for 40 minutes with its transition offense and ball hawking. It took time, foul trouble (Dexter Pittman was a nonfactor, fouling out with only five points and two rebounds in 15 minutes), and an ineffective half-court offense by the Longhorns in the second half to enable UConn to jump-start its game. Associate head coach George Blaney, who is running the team in Calhoun's absence, said he told the Huskies at halftime to start believing they're pretty good. "They needed to believe how good they are," Blaney said. "That they've played the No. 1 schedule in the country and then beat the No. 1 team in the country. And in order to do that, you have to be really good." The Huskies are a somewhat simple team. They have four players who have to play well for them to win at an elite level: Dyson, Walker, Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards. Walker was turnover-prone in the first half (six) and then settled down (two second-half turnovers). Walker finished with 19 points and was 10-of-13 at the free throw line. Meanwhile, Dyson made plenty of shots for everyone, making four 3s, hitting 12-of-23 from the field and finishing with 32 points. Robinson was his usual high-flying self with 17 points, 12 boards and an efficient 7-of-9 shooting, including a 3-pointer. Edwards worked inside for 11 points. "We're the leaders on this team and we all have to play big," Walker said. "I'm a good on-ball defender and so is Rome [Dyson]. We got the two guards, pressured them and forced turnovers. That's what started the whole run."
But now comes the hard part for UConn. The Huskies must beat Providence on the road Wednesday if everyone is to believe in this squad.
UConn couldn't hold on against Cincinnati, Georgetown or Michigan on the road. Beating Texas is certainly something to celebrate and it was hailed in front of one of the loudest crowds this season, but it can be diluted with a dud Wednesday at the Dunk against the Friars.
"We had a great effort against Kentucky, but we lost," Walker said of the December game against the Wildcats in New York. "We had a lot of good emotion after that game and we said after that game that we had to play like that every night. But we didn't. Now we've had a great team win with a lot of energy and emotion again."
Texas was ripe to be beaten again after losing at Kansas State earlier in the week. But the Huskies still needed to prove they could finish off an elite team when they had it down."This showed we're capable of playing with the big teams if we do all the things [Calhoun] has been preaching to us," Dyson said. "If we do that, we'll be fine. But it all starts on the defensive end. We need to run the court. We need to rebound and we need to get on the break and put pressure on the other team." Texas coach Rick Barnes said after the game that to stop the Huskies you have to defend in transition, avoid turnovers and rebound. When the game turned, Texas didn't do any of those three things well. "They got comfortable," Barnes said. "We allowed them to get comfortable and they pretty much executed and did what they wanted to do."
Whether UConn can replicate this type of performance on the road will be the ultimate test. Speculation regarding Calhoun's return this season -- whether it's for Marquette at home next Saturday or against DePaul on Feb. 6 or even later -- has begun around the program. Regardless of his return date, he can take solace in knowing that his team followed his tutelage in his absence. And it worked well enough to pull off an upset against Texas, a win that will have the shelf life to put the Huskies where they felt they deserved to be all along: in the NCAA tournament.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.