Jim Calhoun returned to coach the University of Connecticut men’s college basketball team to a 74-65 home win over the University of Pittsburgh a month after he went on medical leave for a back ailment.
Calhoun, 69, underwent a two-hour surgery Feb. 27 in New York to remove a large disk fragment that had been pressing on a spinal nerve. The team went 3-5 in eight games during his absence that began Feb. 3.
His surgeon sat in the stands watching the coach pace the sidelines during the Huskies’ final regular-season game, associate coach George Blaney said last night.
“I walked into the locker room and he was standing there and I said, ‘I knew you were going to be here,’” Blaney told reporters. “He just smiled at me, and then we just went out there and performed today.”
Shabazz Napier scored 23 points and Roscoe Smith and Jeremy Lamb each added 14 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,” Napier said of Calhoun. “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 scored 16 for Pittsburgh (16-15, 5-13), which fought back from a 14-point halftime deficit to take a 61-60 lead with 2:51 left before UConn began a run that included four free throws to cement the win.
“I thought for a stretch there we were about as good as we’ve been all year long,” said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon. “We’ve shown stretches for a good amount of time, but not quite long enough.”
UConn and Pittsburgh will both play in the first round of the Big East Championship series on March 6 at New York’s Madison Square Garden.