March 3, 2012
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STORRS, Conn. (AP) - University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhounwas advised not to return to the bench so soon after back surgery, and was supposed to take it easy if he did. So much for following doctor's orders.
Calhoun, who was out on medical leave for more than a month, was back pacing the sidelines Saturday, leading Connecticut to a 74-65 win over Pittsburgh.
"He was there to be our backbone when they was making runs," Huskies freshman guard Ryan Boatright (Aurora, Ill.) said. "
The surgeon who performed spinal surgery on the coach Monday was watching from the stands, said associate coach George Blaneywho handled postgame media duties.
"I walked into the locker room and he was standing there and I said, `I knew you were going to be here,"' Blaney said. "He just smiled at me, and then we just went out there and performed today."
Sophomore guard Shabazz Napier (Roxbury, Mass.) scored 23 points, including a big three-pointer with a minute left, and sophomore forward Roscoe Smith (Baltimore, Md.) added 14 points and seven rebounds for the Huskies (18-12, 8-10 BIG EAST).
"He just brings that energy and it just makes me want to fight harder, even when I'm tired, on my last straw," said Napier. "He just pumps his fist and I'm like, `I'm not done, I'm going to keep going.' And he did that for everybody."
J.J. Moore led Pittsburgh (16-15, 5-13) with 16 points. The Panthers, fresh off a 20-point win over St. John's, came back from a 14-point halftime deficit to take a 61-60 lead with 2:51 left on a three-pointer by Tray Woodall, but could not hold on and lost for the sixth time in seven games.
UConn went on an 8-1 run, going up 66-61 on Napier's three-pointer with just over a minute left, right after Smith took a charge from Moore to get UConn the ball. The Huskies were up 70-62 after a layup by Napier, before a 3-pointer on the other end by Gibbs cut the lead to five with 31 seconds left. Four free throws by Napier and Lamb sealed the win.
"When I looked on the sidelines, (Coach Calhoun) would pump me up," Napier said. "There is just something about him - he just brings that energy."
Connecticut jumped on Pittsburgh early, going up 8-2 off the tip and opening the 14-point halftime lead.
Calhoun spent much of the first half on the bench, occasionally pacing the sidelines or taking issue with the referees. But by the time Pitt had cut the deficit to five with just over 11 minutes left, the Hall of Fame coach was back on his feet, his tie loosened, screaming encouragement and yelling when the Huskies failed to get out to defend the three-point line.
A jump shot by Gibbs made it 48-45 with 10 minutes left and a three-point play by Moore tied the game at 48 with 9:20 left. UConn went back up by six, before Moore tied it again with a jumper with 4 minutes left.
The Huskies closed the first half on a 15-4 run, scoring 12 points off nine Pittsburgh turnovers, to turn a 21-18 lead into a 36-22 halftime advantage after a 3-pointer by Napier.
Sophmore guard Jeremy Lamb (Norcross, Ga.) also had 14 points for the Huskies. Ashton Gibbs and Lamar Patterson each had 12 for Pittsburgh.
Pitt shot 63 percent from the field in the second half after being held to 31 percent before intermission.
"I thought for a stretch there we were about as good as we've been all year long," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. "We've shown stretches for a good amount of time, but not quite long enough."
Calhoun received a standing ovation when he walked on the floor and another rousing ovation as he was introduced to the crowd. The Hall of Fame Coach took his medical leave on Feb. 3 and missed the Huskies' last eight games because of the effects of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine, normally associated with aging and sometimes with arthritis. He underwent a two-hour surgery Monday in New York involved removing a large disk fragment that had been pressing on a spinal nerve. The surgeons decompressed the area around the nerve.
"He was fresh out of surgery and still to come and coach us and give it his all meant a lot, so we just wanted to play as hard as we could for him," Lamb said.
Calhoun now has 871 career wins, sixth on the career list and just five behind Adolph Rupp.
Both teams return to action on Tuesday in the first round of the BIG EAST Championship in Madison Square Garden.