STORRS, Connecticut (Ticker) -- Jim Calhoun returned to the bench less then three weeks after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer and witnessed a dominant performance by Emeka Okafor as 24th-ranked Connecticut posted a 77-69 victory over St. John's in a Big East Conference game.
Connecticut won three of five games in Calhoun's absence, as assistant George Blaney guided the team. Calhoun was diagnosed with cancer on January 31 and underwent surgery on February 6. He received a standing ovation from the sellout crowd at Gampel Pavilion as well as greetings from St. John's players.
"Waking into the building with the fans was an incredible feeling, it really was something," Calhoun said. "Just seeing the kids signs, and Mike (Jarvis) having his kids from St. John's come over to welcome me back was a real class gesture."
"I think one of the things that happened in practice was that the team felt that everything was right because Jim was back and I think that we all felt the same way," Blaney said. "He belongs on the Gampel floor at practice, he belongs at the games. I've said it before, he is Connecticut basketball."
Okafor just missed a triple-double, recording 13 points, 12 rebounds and nine blocked shots as Connecticut (17-6, 8-4 Big East East) won for the fourth time in five games.
"Coach is a fighter," Okafor said. "And I knew he'd come out as soon as possible, so it didn't really surprise me."
One of 30 players named to the John Wooden Award midseason top candidates list, the 6-9 Okafor has 248 blocked shots to move three ahead of current Chicago Bulls forward Donyell Marshall for No. 1 on Connecticut's all-time list.
Ben Gordon scored 18 points and Tony Robertson added 14 for the Huskies, who improved to 14-1 at home this season.
"We got off to a real good start, everybody was energized, everybody was really happy to see him back," Gordon said.
Marcus Hatten and reserve Kyle Cuffe each scored 16 points to lead St. John's (12-11, 5-8), which saw the embattled Jarvis ejected for receiving a second technical with 11:23 to play.
Without Jarvis on the bench, the Red Storm rallied as UConn missed 11-of-21 free throws in the final 20 minutes.
Cuffe scored six points during a 10-0 run that he capped with a pair of free throws to pull the Red Storm within, 60-53 with 7:26 remaining. After Connecticut failed to score on its next possession, Hatten and Cuffe each missed jumpers and freshman Marcus White answered with a three-point play to give the Huskies a 63-53 advantage with 6:20 remaining.
"We have to get that under control," Robertson said. "Some teams, if you have a 17-point lead and let them come back, they'll be up 17 before you know it. You have to put teams away when you're in a position to finish them."
UConn could not pull away though, as Taliek Brown, freshman Denham Brown, Gordon and Okafor combined to make just 3-of-8 free throws in a 2:46 span and Hatten drained a 3-pointer to trim the deficit to 70-66 with 1:51 to go. But Gordon responded with a key jumper for a 72-66 lead with 1:24 left.
Hatten, who made just 6-of-20 shots, hit another 3-pointer to pull the Red Storm within, 72-69, with 69 seconds left. This time, Robertson answered with a layup to give the Huskies a five-point lead with 38 seconds remaining and after Anthony Glover missed a 3-pointer, Okafor dunked to make it 76-69 with 25 seconds left.
"I felt terrific about the game, I loved being back in the competition," Calhoun said. "I like being back and I love being with the kids."
Robertson scored eight points in the first half, when the Huskies shot 52 percent (13-of-24) and built a 37-30 lead.
Denham Brown scored five points during a 14-1 run that gave UConn its biggest lead, 51-33, on a pair of free throws by White with 14:41 remaining.
Taliek Brown returned to action after missing the previous four games with a broken index finger. He had four points in 17 minutes off the bench.