With Jim Calhoun on sideline, Huskies win

STORRS, Conn. -- Jim Calhoun waved off a postgame interview because he said he was hurting.

He didn’t attend the postgame news conference, either.

He later apologized for his absence, as he had to check in with his physician following UConn’s 74-65 win Saturday against Pittsburgh.

He was fatigued and understandably so. He was also emotional. The report from his staff and players was that he was near tears during a postgame meeting.

“He was telling us he loved us and how happy he was to be back,’’ said UConn guard Shabazz Napier. “I felt like he was about to cry. It was one of those feelings ... it was a special moment. He wanted us to win so bad. We won this for him. We knew he was fighting for us.’’

The Hall of Fame and three-time national championship coach returned to the sideline five days after undergoing back surgery to remove a piece of a ruptured disk that had been pressing on a nerve in his back.

Calhoun said he was motivated to return because he knew his team needed his voice. He was pleased with the Huskies’ play in recent losses to Syracuse and Providence, but not with their inability to finish games.

Saturday’s win against Pitt was crucial if UConn wanted to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Huskies gave up a big lead to the Panthers before wrestling it back in the final two minutes.

“Coach is such a competitor,’’ said UConn director of basketball operations Karl Hobbs, who was also an assistant for Calhoun. “The doctor gave him the OK and most importantly his wife [Pat] gave him the OK to coach.

“But I’m pretty sure he’ll feel this tomorrow, but this win will make it better for him. But he was a difference. The guys were able to respond to his will. He imposed his will on this team. Hopefully he’ll stay healthy because we need him the rest of the season.’’

Calhoun suffered the first effects of spinal stenosis over the summer. The pain radiated from his lower back down to his leg in December and hit a peak in a loss to Georgetown on Feb. 1. Calhoun was in immense pain and had trouble on the flight back from Washington, D.C.

Two days later, it was announced he was taking an indefinite leave of absence. Calhoun was bedridden for days before he was able to get to doctors in Boston and New York to decide upon the best course of action. He opted for a surgical procedure to remove a piece of the disk that was pressing on the nerve. Even before the surgery last Monday, Calhoun’s plan was to return for the Pitt game if he was physically able to coach.

The Huskies were 3-5 in his absence.

“They always say that every hour you’re on the operating table it takes a month to get that back and he was there for two-plus hours so it should take him two to three months to recover,’’ said longtime associate head coach George Blaney, who filled in for Calhoun on the sideline during his absence and during the postgame news conference Saturday. “He was back in five days. He did that after prostate cancer. He doesn’t take Novocain when he goes to the dentist. Do you know anybody who doesn’t do that? He just felt he needed to be back with the team.’’

The Huskies had to beat Pitt for some momentum heading into the Big East tournament. No one is expecting the Huskies to embark on a five-games-in-five-days run to the Big East tournament title like they did last year with Kemba Walker.

There are still plenty of problems that remain unsolved despite Saturday’s win. Jeremy Lamb still needs to be much more assertive offensively and, of course, the Huskies’ defensive transition has to improve; they give up way too many easy buckets and haven’t defended the 3-point line well.

Still, with wins at Notre Dame and over Harvard, Florida State, West Virginia and Seton Hall, UConn may have done enough to squeeze into the NCAA tournament field as one of 37 at-large candidates.

“We’ve got too many top-50 games and too many things have gone on with this team,’’ said Blaney, referring to the nine games missed by Ryan Boatright due to NCAA eligibility issues and the 11 games Calhoun missed (eight for his back and three due to an NCAA suspension). “But I would like not to have it in the hands of the committee. We just need to go and win games.’’

And having Calhoun back, barring any setback over the next two days before the team leaves for New York for the Big East tournament, is a must.

“He has a lot of energy,’’ Napier said of Calhoun. “A lot more than a lot of people do. He brings that energy that a lot of people don’t. With him on the sideline, I know it makes us feel secure."