Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun speaks with an official during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Pittsburgh, in Storrs, Conn., on Saturday, March 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)
STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Jim Calhoun was 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 and screaming Saturday, leading Connecticut to a 74-65 win over Pittsburgh.
"He was there to be our backbone when they was making runs," Huskies guard Ryan Boatright said." It was just a whole 'nother vibe with him back on the sidelines.
The surgeon who performed spinal surgery on the coach Monday was watching from the stands, said associate coach George Blaney who handled postgame media duties for the exhausted Calhoun.
"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."
Shabazz Napier scored 23 points, including a big 3-pointer with a minute left, and Roscoe Smith added 14 points and seven rebounds for the Huskies (18-12, 8-10 Big East) who kept alive hopes for an at-large bid to defend their NCAA championship.
"He just brings that energy and it just makes me want to fight harder, even when I'm tired, on my last straw," guard Shabazz Napier said. "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 3-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 3-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, (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 3-point line.
A jump shot by Gibbs made it 48-45 with 10 minutes left and a 3-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 Shabazz Napier.
Jeremy Lamb 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."
This was the first time the two schools have met without either of them being ranked in 15 years.
Connecticut needed the win to improve its NCAA tournament resume. The Huskies had lost nine of their past 12 games and this was just their sixth win since Jan. 1. But the Huskies came in with an RPI ranking of 36, and played what many experts said was the toughest schedule in the nation.
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.
The team went 3-5 in Calhoun's absence, and is 5-6 this season without the Hall of Fame head coach this season. He missed the team's first three conference games while serving an NCAA suspension.
Calhoun now has 871 career wins, sixth on the career list and just five behind Adolph Rupp.
Pitt had won four of the last five meetings with Connecticut, but the teams had not played since last year's 76-74 Uconn win in the Big East tournament.
The two teams have combined for 12 Big East regular season or tournament championships ithe past decade.