PHILADELPHIA --- Jerome Dyson was uncharacteristically vocal during pregame warm-ups Monday night.
"Why not us!" the normally stoic senior guard kept shouting, in an effort to pump his team up two days after its most lethargic loss of the season.
Why not, indeed.
Paced by Kemba Walker's otherwordly 29-point, nine-rebound effort and uncommon hustle from the rest of the team, the Huskies answered Dyson's pregame question and topped fourth-ranked Villanova 84-75 before 18,123 at the Wachovia Center.
"We had to start somewhere, and we can start tonight," Dyson said afterwards. "Why not tonight? And we did it."
Signature win? The signature of that ol' City of Brotherly Love denizen John Hancock wasn't any bigger. Whether or not it's too late, with a 15-11 overall record and 5-8 mark in the Big East, remains to be seen. But an impressive road win – amazingly, the Huskies' first of the season – over a team with Final Four aspirations is a nice way to start.
"(Villanova head coach Jay Wright) has built a terrific team that's capable of getting to Indianapolis, certainly," Calhoun said. "And we're capable of getting to Rutgers right now."
The Huskies take on the Scarlet Knights on Saturday in Piscataway, N.J.
"For me to thinking about the NCAA tournament would be foolhardy," Calhoun added. "My job is to get our team to play the best basketball they're capable of. If that's good enough, fine. If it's not good enough, and they play up to their capabilities, that's fine. But we didn't do that on Saturday."
Indeed, Calhoun labeled Saturday's lethargic, 60-48 home loss to Cincinnati "embarrassing," and one of the worst of his 24-year reign at UConn.
"To use the word 'embarrassment' is a tough one," he said. "I certainly meant it. I'm trying to be very upfront with how I feel, that's how I felt in that situation, that we didn't give it everything we had. If we had lost tonight, they gave everything we had. We were on the floor for loose balls. We responded the way we were supposed to."
No one more so than Walker, whose scoring total (helped by a trio of 3-pointers and 14 of 16 foul shooting) was a career-best.
"He was outstanding," said senior forward Gavin Edwards. "I can't say a bad thing about it."
Calhoun was far more descriptive.
"That was his best game of the year, and certainly one of the best games of his career," the coach said. "It wasn't just the nine rebounds or the assists or the big 3's and the foul shots. Those have an awful lot to do with it, (but) an awful lot of it had to do with the way he competed. He did the same thing on Saturday too, by the way. He competed, in a tough situation."
Said Walker, who was kneed in the thigh with about 2 ½ minutes left to play: "We play hard, that's us. Tonight was a great team effort. Guys got on the floor for loose balls. We played extremely hard, and that's why we won."
Dyson added 15 (despite 3-for-14 shooting), and Stanley Robinson and Alex Oriakhi (off the bench) added 10 apiece. Robinson also had seven turnovers.
UConn had a 36-35 lead at the break after an entertaining, physical first half. The Huskies came out and hit their first eight shots from the floor and eventually built their lead up to as much as 11. UConn attempted just 15 field goals in the latter half but hit 10 of them, and swished 24 of 30 free throws over the final 20 minutes.
The Wildcats fell to 22-3 overall, 11-2 Big East.
"If we play hard like that," noted freshman forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, "I don't think anybody can beat us."
RIM RATTLINGS: For the first time this season (and, by extension, his career), Oriakhi, a freshman, found himself out of the starting lineup. He found out at shootaround on Monday, when he wasn't among the first group. Junior Charles Okwandu started at center instead.
"I kind of used it as motivation," Oriakhi said, "and it worked."
Indeed, he finished with 10 points, four rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes of action.
"I'll come off the bench," he said. "If I keep playing like that, I won't mind."
***Oriakhi's high school teammate, Coombs-McDaniel, also came up big, hitting a pair of big 3-pointers and finishing with eight points.
Calhoun: "How many times can you go to the well, and come back? Tonight they did. We were certainly at a crisis in confidence, there was no doubt in my mind whatsoever. So tonight I was Mr. Smiley Face – and understand that's a whole different kind of definition, my Mr. Smiley Face and the real Mr. Smiley Face. But the whole point was to try to get them through it and stay with it. If we stayed with it, we'd have a chance to win the game."
Calhoun on Walker: "I thought that was a special performance. The one great thing about him, anybody who loves the game, covers the game or cares about the game, he's fun to watch play. And I'm not talking just about the things he does quickness-wise, I'm talking about his enthusiasm for the game, and his approach to the game. It's fun to watch a guy who enjoys competing. And he's been like that through a season (which) we haven't had many like this, obviously."
Gavin Edwards on UConn's NCAA tourney hopes: "If we lose another one, it's pretty much 'game over', as far as the tournament goes."
(Not so sure about that. A win over No. 6 West Virginia next week could make up for another loss or two. Maybe).