UConn's start to the 2012 Big East tournament looked a lot like the way the Huskies began last year's incredible run that ended with a conference title and a national championship.
Coach Jim Calhoun was on the sideline again, just eight days after undergoing back surgery. The Huskies, again the tournament's ninth seed, had a guard leading the way, but this time it was Jeremy Lamb, not Kemba Walker, who led UConn against 16th-seeded DePaul.
Lamb scored 25 points and Ryan Boatright added 19 to lead Connecticut to an 81-67 victory over the Blue Demons on Tuesday in the opening round of the Big East tournament.
Calhoun missed eight games last in the season after being diagnosed with spinal stenosis, and the Huskies won only three of those.
He looked like his old self Tuesday, getting up and down from his seat often and making his way on the court at a whistle to make sure Boatright understood what he wanted him to do in running the offense.
"It's been a different kind of season. But through it all, somewhat by separation, I realized how much I care about these kids," Calhoun said. "The pain is a different kind of pain, it's a muscular pain and I'm not walking with a cane anymore. I couldn't walk with a cane on the sidelines because the officials might have been hit. There was always the fear of pain of some sort but to alleviate that pain was incredible."
It was Calhoun's 34th career win the Big East tournament, passing Georgetown's John Thompson for sole possession of second place behind the 46 of Syracuse's Jim Boeheim.
The ninth-seeded Huskies (19-12) will play eighth-seeded West Virginia in the second round on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Cleveland Melvin and Moses Morgan both had 19 points for the 16th-seeded Blue Demons (12-19), who closed the season losing 10 of their last 11.
"I'm disappointed it's over," DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said, "but we lost to a better team today."
The Huskies started shooting like a team destined to again do big things in the postseason. They made their first seven 3-point attempts and were 7 of 9 from beyond the arc in taking a 46-33 lead.
A 15-4 run to start the second half, capped by a 3 by Roscoe Smith, gave Connecticut a 61-37 lead with 14:47 to play.
"I think today we moved the ball well," Lamb said when asked about the 3-point shooting success for a team that entered the game 11th in the conference at 32.4 percent. "Early I had a couple open shots. I tried to set my man up and our big men had great screens so I was able to knock a couple down."
Unlike last year when the Huskies went on to a 97-71 win, the Blue Demons found a way to make a game of it. An 11-0 run got DePaul within 63-51 with 11:09 to play and the Blue Demons were able to get within 70-61 on a 3 by Morgan with 7:15 to play.
"I really admired our guys' fighting spirit to get back into the game in the second half," Purnell said, "but we couldn't keep them off the offensive boards in the second half and they just got enough in transition."
Lamb had four points in a 6-0 run that got the Huskies straightened out and the Blue Demons were never closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
Lamb wouldn't get caught up in comparisons to Walker.
"I'm not trying to be Kemba," Lamb said. "Of course everybody wants to lead their team to championships but I'm just trying to do what's best for this team. The whole team knows we've got five great players, so it's a great team effort."
As good as Connecticut was from behind the 3-point line (8 of 13) it was terrible from the free throw line, making 11 of 24, including an 0-for-6 effort by freshman center Andre Drummond.
The Huskies, who came in fourth in the country with 6.7 blocks per game, blocked 10 shots against DePaul with Drummond and Oriakhi getting four each. DePaul shot just 32.4 percent from the field (23 of 71), the 12th time in the last 21 games an opponent didn't shoot 40 percent against the Huskies.
Lamb finished 10 of 18 from the field, including 3 of 6 on 3s, and Boatright was 5 of 9 overall and made his two 3-point attempts. Boatright matched his career high with seven assists.