HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut’s freshmen might be ready to take some of the burden off star guard Kemba Walker.
Walker scored a season-low 16 points, but that was enough to help the No. 8 Huskies beat Tennessee 72-61 on Saturday, spoiling coach Bruce Pearl’s brief return to the Volunteers’ bench.
Jeremy Lamb also had 16 points and fellow freshman Roscoe Smith added 12, hitting four of five 3-pointers for UConn (16-2). Sophomore center Alex Oriakhi had 12 points and 10 rebounds for his seventh double-double and fourth in his last five games.
“It’s going to be easier on (Kemba) if we are knocking down shots for him,” Lamb said. “We took some big shots, and we were able to make some big shots.”
UConn shot 9 of 19 from 3-point range. The Huskies, who beat No. 7 Villanova on Monday, have won five in a row.
“Winning solves a ton of problems, but coaching a team that listens to you and is getting better, and you can see it ... there is a lot of great pleasure in that, too,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. “That’s the thing I’m probably happiest about.”
Melvin Goins had 15 points and Scotty Hopson added 13 for Tennessee (12-7), which had Pearl on the sideline for the first time since beating Memphis on Jan. 5. The coach is in the middle of serving an eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension for lying to NCAA investigators, but was allowed to coach Saturday’s non-conference game against the Huskies.
The school is still awaiting word from the NCAA on its recommended sanctions for recruiting violations.
“For me, it was good to get back and it was fun to be in the game for a while,” Pearl said. “It was fun to have some affect on the game.”
Tennessee did a good job denying Walker the ball early, and led by as many as eight points as Goins hit all four of his shots in the first half.
The UConn junior went just 6 of 17 from the floor, missed his first five shots and took almost 15 minutes to score his first point, a free throw that made in 24-18 Tennessee.
That started a 10-1 run, highlighted when Charles Okwandu hit a layup, then ran to the other end in time to grab a layup attempt by Tennessee’s Skylar McBee out of the air.
Walker’s long 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer over Cameron Tatum and Tobias Harris gave the Huskies a 32-31 lead.
“It was a big shot, but then, the thing was, we were able to keep it going,” Walker said.
Connecticut took the lead for good on Smith’s 3-pointer that made it 44-41 early in the second half.
But it was just a five-point lead before Shabazz Napier made a spinning move in the lane and found Lamb behind the arc. Oriakhi then stole the ball from Hopson and dunked, putting UConn up 64-54 with under 5 minutes left.
The Huskies hit enough free throws down the stretch to secure the win.
“If those guys are hitting from the outside, it draws guys and allows me to drive the lane and dish out,” said Walker, who also had seven assists. “It definitely makes the game easier.”
Tennessee came into the game undefeated against ranked opponents. The Vols beat Big East members Villanova and Pittsburgh this season, and topped Memphis.
UConn is awaiting a final decision on its own recruiting case. The school has acknowledged violations stemming from the recruitment of former player Nate Miles, but denied an allegation that Calhoun failed to foster an atmosphere of compliance.
Tennessee came in 6-1 against the Big East under Pearl, with his lone loss coming against Louisville in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
Assistant coach Tony Jones will be back on the bench for Tennessee on Wednesday when the Volunteers host LSU.
“It’s a very serious penalty,” Pearl said. “Eight league games? One league game can be the difference between seedings or even making the tournament. It’s significant. It’s fortunate that I’m suspended for those games, but not for preparation or for practice.”