Storrs, Conn. Connecticut got off to its fastest start of the season Saturday, and the main man being back on the bench had a lot to do with it.
Coach Jim Calhoun returned to the sideline 16 days after prostate cancer surgery, nearly a week ahead of schedule, and the Huskies scored the game's first nine points in a 77-69 victory over St. John's.
"It just gave us that spark, that jump," center Emeka Okafor said. "And we fed off of it the whole game. The crowd got into it, and we got into it."
The sellout crowd of over 10,000 at Gampel Pavilion welcomed Calhoun with a deafening standing ovation as he made his way to the bench before the game. Signs in the stands heralded his return, and in the student section, seven shirtless men had "Calhoun" spelled out on their bare torsos.
"It was an incredible feeling," Calhoun said. "I missed the game, I missed the kids, I missed the camaraderie."
Ben Gordon led UConn (17-6 overall, 8-4 Big East Conference) with 18 points, and Okafor dominated inside with 12 rebounds and nine blocks.
"We saw coach was there -- the general's back -- and it got us fired up and ready to go," Gordon said.
The 60-year-old Calhoun was expected to take three to four weeks off, but felt strong enough to come back early. A bit fatigued after the game, Calhoun said he still needed to make some adjustments as he recovers. He said he'd cut back on practice time and lean even more on assistant coach George Blaney, who guided the team to a 3-2 record in Calhoun's absence.
"Not only is he an incredible friend, I trust everything he does," Calhoun said of Blaney, the former head coach at Holy Cross and Seton Hall.
Meanwhile, Calhoun's counterpart, Mike Jarvis, made an early exit after picking up two technical fouls in a one-minute span midway through the second half. Steaming as he left, a calmer Jarvis retained his humor after the game.
"I'm sorry that my mother had to watch her son be escorted out, but that happens once every few years. I got too excited, too emotionally involved," Jarvis said. "I was really looking forward to (Calhoun's) return, I was hoping that I could maybe send him home for a couple of days' rest, but that wasn't to be."
Jarvis was among the many greeting Calhoun with handshakes and hugs as he walked onto the court. A few of the St. John's players also walked over to shake his hand.
Still vocal, but somewhat subdued, Calhoun watched and winced as his team's 18-point second-half lead evaporated. Kyle Cuffe scored six points in a 10-0 St. John's run that pulled the Red Storm (12-11, 5-8) within 60-53.
"I'm sure I'll be tired later, but I did not feel any fatigue at all during the game," Calhoun said. "I'm going home to rest right away."
The Huskies struggled from the free-throw line late in the game and the Red Storm responded with a three-pointer from Willie Shaw and two from Marcus Hatten to cut the lead to three points with 1:09 left.
It wouldn't be enough as UConn closed the game with a 5-0 run that included a floater from Tony Robertson and a dunk by Okafor.
With his nine blocks, Okafor became the school's career leader with 248 rejections. He surpassed Donyell Marshall's mark of 245 set from 1992-94.