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UConn 81, Bucknell 52

UConn all business

Bucknell is given no shot at upset

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / March 18, 2011

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WASHINGTON — They are in a different phase now. Winning five games in five days to take the Big East tournament doesn’t matter any more.

No, this is a more measured pace. Win two games in three days in each of the next three weeks, and the Connecticut Huskies will have obtained their ultimate goal — winning the national championship.

In last night’s NCAA Tournament second-round game at the Verizon Center, the third-seeded Huskies were nearly flawless in rolling to an 81-52 victory over No. 14 seed Bucknell in what was a textbook performance of how coach Jim Calhoun wants his team to play.

Good defense, 3-point proficiency, controlling the pace of the game — all things the Huskies showed, and all things Bucknell had done so well in winning 23 of its previous 25 games.

But winning in the Patriot League is not on the same plateau as winning in the Big East. And last night it showed from the opening tip.

Calhoun does not like opening-round NCAA Tournament games in which his team is a lofty seed. He much prefers the second game of the weekend, when he knows his Huskies will have their game faces on, no matter the quality of the opponent.

But UConn (27-9) has All-Big East guard Kemba Walker, who was coming off the best scoring effort in Big East tournament history (130 points in five games), and a roster of talented freshmen and sophomores.

The Huskies face Cincinnati tomorrow night at 9:40 with a Sweet 16 berth at stake.

Make no mistake, Calhoun made it clear not to take Bucknell (25-9) casually. Sitting in a dressing room adjacent to the UConn locker room before the game, Calhoun referenced the upsets by Morehead State (over Louisville) and Richmond (over Vanderbilt), plus Princeton’s near-upset of Kentucky — all double-digit seeds playing up to their opponent’s level.

“Some teams are just used to winning at any level,’’ said Calhoun. “They aren’t awed by just being in the tournament. I think Bucknell is like that.’’

But Calhoun also knew his team is better, and last night it showed from the get-go.

“For a lot of these kids, everybody really except for Kemba, no one else had meaningful NCAA [Tournament] minutes, so it was important for him to kind of get his teammates involved in the game,’’ said Calhoun. “And he did that as well as you’re going to do it. And then he obviously made some big baskets.’’

Coming off a six-day layoff, the Bison started slowly, allowing the Huskies to take control. They roared to a 39-22 halftime lead by doing little wrong. They made almost 52 percent of their shots and limited Bucknell to 32 percent. They committed only two turnovers and outrebounded the Bison, 21-11.

Walker was on his way to a double-double with 6 points and 6 assists — he finished with 18 points and a career-high 12 assists.

Roscoe Smith (17 points) and Jeremy Lamb (16) also scored in double figures for the Huskies.

Afterward, Walker said he regarded talk of an “emotionally spent’’ UConn team as sheer nonsense.

“Everybody’s trying to say that this team is tired from those five games in five days but there’s no way we could be tired,’’ said Walker. “This is the best tournament in the collegiate level and we just want to play basketball and get as far as possible.’’

The Huskies never let up in the second half, quickly doubling their lead and expanding it to as many as 41.

Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen knew his team had to do something different to have any hope of getting back into contention.

“I felt like we wanted to contain their penetration. I thought we did a good job stopping them in transition,’’ said Paulsen. “We were at a decided disadvantage athletically and size-wise. We were going to have to make some adjustments . . . and certainly at the beginning of the second half, making it very clear that any thoughts we had of kind of narrowing the margin, they erased that very quickly.’’

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.