It was the kind of feeling that comes from winning a postseason game. The Huskies have done that 12 consecutive times, dating back to last season when they began their national championship drive with five straight here at Madison Square Garden.
"It's tournament time and there's definitely a different feeling," said guard Jeremy Lamb, who lived up to his first team All-Big East status with a 25-point performance. "It's win or go home."
And it was the kind of feeling that comes from winning back-to-back games, something the Huskies had not experienced since mid-January. A two-game winning streak that just happens to correlate to the return of coach Jim Calhoun seems to be providing medicinal relief for this group.
"It's been a while," said freshman center Andre Drummond, who had 12 points, five rebounds. "But there's a lot more coming, I can tell you that."
That's what winning can do to the confidence meter – and UConn's reading is a high as it has been in a while. UConn (19-12) has played good basketball its last five game and found a way to win three of those.
The victory Tuesday should put a firm lock on an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Anything else the Huskies accomplish this week in the Big East tourney would simply serve as a further boost to that confidence.
UConn, the tourney's No. 9 seed, advances to the second round and will play No. 8 West Virginia (19-12) Wednesday at noon. The Huskies defeated West Virginia 64-57 in Hartford on Jan. 9 and followed that with a win over Notre Dame Jan. 14 for that last encounter with back-to-back success.
"We stopped worrying about what this meant in the standings or what this meant in the grand scheme of things," an emotional Calhoun said after beating DePaul.
For those wanting to make comparisons to UConn's 2011 championship run, the Huskies did get that started with a first-round win over DePaul. And Lamb's performance stirred memories of Kemba Walker's remarkable performance in the Big Apple last season. With Walker's mother, Andrea, cheering on the Huskies from the section reserved for players' parents and relatives, Lamb put on performance worthy of great reviews just off Broadway.
He played 39 minutes and put up 18 field goal attempts – his second highest total of the season. The UConn coaching staff continues to encourage Lamb to shoot more, even when he is 10 of 18 overall, 3 of 6 from three-point range, and has four assists in 39 minutes.
"We've been preparing all year for this time," Lamb said. "Now that it's here, we just want to give it all we've got and don't look back. . . . I'm not trying to be Kemba. Or course everybody wants to lead their team to championships, but I'm just trying to do what's best for this team."
With a layup that gave UConn a 46-33 halftime lead, Lamb became the 46th player in UConn history to score 1,000 career points – but only the sixth to do it as a sophomore.
Cleveland Melvin and Moses Morgan led DePaul (12-19) with 19 points each. This is an improving DePaul team and the Blue Demons didn't give up when they were down 24 points midway through the second half. DePaul cut the margin to nine, but the Huskies finished the game strong – something that hasn't necessarily been a given this season.
"I thought Jeremy Lamb was awfully good in the game from start to finish," DePaul coach Oliver Purnell said. "He really kept us at bay in the first half. They got enough balance with some of their inside guys scoring – mainly Drummond. But it was really too much Lamb."
This was the Lamb that UConn expected to have on hand all season. He has led the team in scoring but Tuesday he was explosive, aggressive and scored on a variety of shots.
"He got us started," said Calhoun, who won his 34th Big East tournament game, passing Georgetown's John Thompson for sole possession of second place behind the 46 of Syracuse's Jim Boeheim.
The Huskies have not been a good three-point shooting team but Lamb set the tone and UConn made its first seven three-pointers. For the game, UConn shot 53.4 percent overall and 61.5 percent (8 of 13) on threes. The excellent ball movement was reflected in 20 assists on 31 baskets and only nine turnovers.
In fact, the Huskies had more blocks (10) than turnovers. Drummond and Alex Oriakhi each had four blocks. Roscoe Smith (eight points) and Niels Giffey each had one block.
And with Shabazz Napier in foul trouble and playing only 16 minutes, Ryan Boatright came off the bench to score 19 points and hand out seven assists in 33 minutes. At practice Monday, Calhoun was waiting on the court to greet Boatright, a freshman from the Chicago area, to tell him he had not played well in UConn's regular season game against the Blue Demons.
"He said, ‘You're going to have a great game,' " Boatright said of Calhoun's message. "When I came out today, I just tried to do the best for the team so that when I came in I got started by playing defense and then the offense came to me."
Calhoun pointed out after the game it has been a "different kind of season" for UConn. And now, without all the distractions, UConn seems to be whole for the first time this season.
It's funny, but the Huskies didn't seem to understand how much they missed Calhoun until he came back last Friday. And Calhoun's absence for eight games because of his back condition made the Hall of Fame coach realize a thing or two as well.
"By separation, I realized how much I cared about these kids," Calhoun said. "Maybe sometimes you don't hold up the trophy, but they're your kids. . . . And that's why I came back to my basketball team, because I felt I owed them something."