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Calhoun’s gift ranks up there

Coach enjoys win over No. 1 Texas

Damion James and Texas had no answer for Jerome Dyson, who finished with 32 points in Connecticut’s upset win. Damion James and Texas had no answer for Jerome Dyson, who finished with 32 points in Connecticut’s upset win. (Fred Beckham/Associated Press)
By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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STORRS, Conn. - George Blaney spent the first half of yesterday’s game against Texas folding his arms, shaking his head, and staring at a Connecticut team that seemed to hit the self-destruct button more often than it could make baskets.

Committing 16 turnovers against the top-ranked team in the country is not part of the formula for success Blaney had preached to a team that was adjusting to the absence of coach Jim Calhoun. And the miscues created an 8-point halftime deficit.

Blaney, UConn’s veteran associate head coach, again had stepped into the void. Calhoun was home on a medical leave of absence, which was at least partially caused by the stress that comes with dealing with such imperfections as the Huskies showed in the first half against the Longhorns, much to the dismay of the Gampel Pavilion sellout crowd of 10,167.

Blaney went to the locker room at halftime with one instruction: “Stop the turnovers,’’ he said. His words were especially directed at guard Kemba Walker, whose line at that time was 2 points, 5 assists, and 6 turnovers.

But when UConn started the second half with a turnover by forward Stanley Robinson and the Longorns increased their lead to 10, Blaney called a timeout with nine seconds gone, and had a Calhoun moment. “What did I spend the last 20 minutes talking about?’’ he said to his team.

And just like that, a buzzer went off in the Huskies’ minds, which translated to action. During the next 13 minutes, UConn played defense, rebounded, scored baskets, and limited turnovers, blowing past the Longhorns (17-2) with a 37-14 blitz that resulted in an 88-74 victory. Calhoun watched the game from his home in Pomfret, and spoke to his players by speaker phone afterward.

Calhoun’s return date remains unknown. When doctors sidelined him Tuesday after some stress-related test readings, Calhoun pondered what to do. The choices were stay at home in Connecticut, or walk away for some reflection and head to his summer home in Hilton Head, S.C.

After a few days, Calhoun decided to stay at home in Connecticut, although as he felt better, the idleness resulted in a severe case of cabin fever, as he worked out on the treadmill and talked with old friends.

“We had a good conversation,’’ said former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, who had his own coming-out party yesterday after an extended illness. “It was just nice to talk to him.’’

Gavitt was part of a Big East reunion of sorts, which included Longhorns coach Rick Barnes, who spent six seasons at Providence and has now been at Texas for 12. “Seeing Dave was as much as anything why I looked forward to coming back here,’’ said Barnes.

What Gavitt, Barnes, and Calhoun saw yesterday was old-fashioned UConn basketball. It was led by a refocused Walker, who scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half and committed only two more turnovers, and by guard Jerome Dyson, who poured in a game-high 32 points in helping UConn improve its record to 13-6 and give it a win against a top-10 team after losses to Kentucky, Duke, and Pittsburgh.

“We went into the locker room and called Coach,’’ said Blaney after the game. “He was excited. He told them how tough they were and how he believed all along in their heart. They were yelling at the phone, ‘Hurry back, Coach,’ and, ‘Get well.’ He sounded good and we were pleased we were able to tell him that.’’