HARTFORD, Conn. — UConn found itself in situations Saturday that would ordinarily call for Kemba Walker to come up with something spectacular. This could have been another game for teammates to clear out as the Huskies’ star guard took over yet another nip-and-tuck nonconference game.
There was one swelling first-half deficit and then another, both approaching double digits. There was a stubborn opponent in Tennessee that kept pushing throughout the second half. And, ultimately, there was a sellout crowd of 16,294 rising in appreciation not because of Walker’s individual brilliance but because those around him came up with answer after answer.
Walker had a team-high 16 points, but so did Jeremy Lamb as the No. 8 Huskies pulled away for a 72-61 victory over the unranked Vols at the XL Center. It was the first time Walker wasn’t alone atop UConn’s scoring list.
“Far and away our best team effort,” coach Jim Calhoun said.
Walker missed his first five shots, finished 6-for-17 and had a season low in points. But he had seven assists, a sign of trust in those around him and a sign of maturity up and down a roster that has, at times, watched Walker’s one-man show.
Alex Oriakhi had his seventh double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Roscoe Smith had 12 points, making four of five three-pointers. Jamal Coombs-McDaniels pulled UConn out of an early hole with consecutive three-pointers, and Charles Okwandu had six points and five rebounds. Lamb made six of 10 shots.
Tennessee, like every opponent, paid significant attention to Walker, often choosing to ignore a supporting cast that made the Vols pay.
“If you’re going to lose to UConn at UConn, that’s how you’re supposed to get beat,” said Vols coach Bruce Pearl, making a one-day return to the bench while still in the midst of an eight-game SEC suspension. “I thought there were times we left (other players) foolishly, but that’s why they’re better. They’re unselfish.”
UConn (16-2) won all 12 of its nonconference games this season, sweeping the non-Big East portion for the second time in three seasons. The Huskies were also 12-0 out of the conference in the 2008-09 regular season before losing to Michigan State in the Final Four.
Highlights this season included victories over Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas and now Tennessee (12-7), a talented but inconsistent team that entered 3-0 against ranked opponents with victories over Pittsburgh, Villanova and Memphis.
“We’ve been unbeaten out of the league (before), but I’d have to go back to find out if we’ve beaten more quality opponents,” Calhoun said. “I’m exceptionally proud. Twelve out of 12. I can’t complain. Given who they had to face and beat, I’m incredibly proud.”
The Huskies had a 36-31 rebounding edge and grabbed 14 offensive rebounds to the Vols’ 12. They held the Vols’ two best players in check. Scotty Hopson had 13 points and five turnovers, and Tobias Harris had 10 points and five rebounds. Hopson and Harris combined to shoot 9-for-23, and the Huskies had answers that Melvin Goins (5-for-8, 15 points) could not match.
UConn was 9-for-19 on three-pointers (47.4 percent). The Huskies shot 48.2 percent overall, 50 percent in the second half.
“We were able to get some opens shots,” Calhoun said. “The big key is, will those guys knock it down?”
The Huskies did. Walker was 1-for-5 from beyond the arc. His teammates were 8-for-14.
“They threw guys at me and I was able to find (others),” said Walker, averaging 25 points. “I’ll gladly sacrifice points.”
Tennessee clogged the lane and sent two players at Walker, preventing him from finding space in the lane. But as the game evolved, UConn adapted. Trailing 12-5, Coombs-McDaniel made consecutive three-pointers. Trailing 21-13, Lamb made consecutive baskets to start an 11-3 run that tied it at 24.
Smith made a three-pointer to give the Huskies a 27-25 lead. John Fields committed a turnover when Tennessee would have liked to hold for the final shot of the half, and Walker, still able to come up with one for the highlight reel, made a 25-foot three-pointer that beat the buzzer and gave the Huskies a 32-31 lead at halftime.
Smith gave UConn the lead for good with a three-pointer to make it 44-41. Later, with Tennessee mustering a final push, he made another three to push the lead to 55-51. That started a 14-3 run that included a three-pointer by Lamb and a steal-and-dunk sequence by Oriakhi.
“He can get 30 any night he wants,” Lamb said of Walker. “Tonight he got us involved. It was good. We all contributed.”