New York - Something about postseason play ignites a fire inside the UConn Huskies.
They go from smoldering ember to raging bonfire.
"Guys know this it," junior Alex Oriakhi said. "If you don't come out with fire, any minor error can cost you the season. Guys are really playing with a sense of urgency. We're going to fight until the end."
Tuesday, ninth-seeded UConn began what it hopes is another deep postseason run with a convincing 81-67 victory over No. 16 DePaul in a Big East tournament first-round game at Madison Square Garden.
It was UConn's 12th consecutive postseason victory dating back to last season. The Huskies (19-12) also have their first two-game winning streak since mid-January.
Their resurgence has coincided with the return of coach Jim Calhoun from a back problem.
"Obviously, the last two games have been very fulfilling," said Calhoun, whose Huskies beat Pittsburgh to close out the regular season.
Sophomore Jeremy Lamb provided the spark Tuesday by scoring a game-high 25 points, including 15 in the first 10 and a half minutes to put UConn in front for good.
"We needed our first team All-Big East player to show up and he got us started," Calhoun said.
The Huskies also received valuable contributions from Ryan Boatright (19 points, seven assists), Andre Drummond (12 points, five rebounds, four blocks), Roscoe Smith (eight points, seven rebounds) and Oriakhi (nine points, seven rebounds, four blocks).
They led 46-33 at halftime and never let the 16th-seeded Blue Demons (12-19) get closer than nine in the second half.
UConn's growing confidence was evident in several areas. The Huskies shot the ball extremely well (53.4 percent). They hit their first seven 3-pointers and went 8-for-13 from beyond the arc, and defensively they limited DePaul to 32.4 percent shooting.
And they didn't buckle when DePaul narrowed a 23-point deficit to nine (70-61) with 7:18 remaining. Lamb answered with two free throws, Oriakhi scored on a dunk and Lamb added a fast break basket to put the game out of reach.
Basically, they looked like a different team from a few games ago, or even just a few days ago.
When Calhoun showed up for his first practice in about a month Friday, he was struck by his team's lack of confidence. The Huskies had lost nine of 12.
Calhoun blamed a tough schedule on UConn's struggles.
"Hopefully, (the schedule) is going to make us tougher down the line," he said. "That was the most noticeable thing last Friday when I walked in. I can't believe some of the guys didn't have the confidence, and that schedule will do that to you."
Of course, the Huskies will face a much stiffer test today. West Virginia (19-12), which had a first-round bye, also is fighting for an NCAA tournament bid. UConn won the regular-season meeting, 64-57, Jan. 9 in Hartford.
"They didn't have to play a game today so we'll see how that works," associate coach George Blaney said. "We're looking forward to the game and competition."
With a fiery Calhoun on the sideline and the Huskies feeling good and playing better, their chances of advancing have certainly improved from a week ago.
"It's good to have everyone back," Boatright said. "It's good to have our whole family here. We're here to support each other and move on in this tournament and into the NCAA tournament. It's just great having coach back."