Huskies Embrace Calhoun's Return

STORRS, Conn. – As the clock ticked off the final seconds of Connecticut's 74-65 victory over Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon, point guard Shabazz Napier walked toward the UConn bench and suddenly found himself wrapped up in the arms of coach Jim Calhoun.

"I needed that hug, man, I missed the guy so much," Napier said after the game. "All the yelling and everything he does for this team. I needed to get a hug. I actually went to him and he just opened his arms and I fell in them."

Considering everything the Huskies have been through the last month, no one could blame them if they viewed that hug as a new beginning. Calhoun, who had back surgery Monday in New York, was on the bench for the first time since Feb. 1 when the Huskies lost at Georgetown. And during Calhoun's medical leave of absence, it was Napier who called out his teammates and criticized them for not having enough fight in them.

"We get punched and some guys just throw pillows back," Napier said following UConn's 79-64 loss to Marquette on Feb. 18.

Napier took some heat for his remarks, but he backed them up with the game winning shot in UConn's 73-70 overtime victory at Villanova two nights later. And Saturday against Pitt, the Huskies played their fourth consecutive competitive game.

"This time we took the punch and then punched back," associate head coach George Blaney said Saturday. "I thought we out-toughed them at the end.

"We played three good games in a row and had one win to show for it. This is the fourth good game in a row. I think we're trending in the right direction. Having [Calhoun] back really helps, and we'll go from there.

"And I thought Shabazz Napier had one of his best games of the year."

Napier scored 23 points, had six assists, four steals and three turnovers while playing all 40 minutes against Pitt. He was 7-for-18 from the field, hit 4 of 9 three-pointers, and hit 5 of 6 free throw attempts.

"This is a new season for us [going into the Big East tournament]," Napier said. "This is where the madness happens and hopefully we will be on the better end of it."

In retrospect, Napier thinks his harsh words after the Marquette game might have helped his teammates.

"After that [Marquette] game, I don't think we've thrown any pillows at all," Napier said. "I can't question anybody's energy or anybody's effort. I said what I said and my teammates have shown me different. I wish I didn't have to say that. I wish I didn't have to try to get into people. That's not who I am.

"I could've said some things better. But right now, it's a great thing."

Napier said Calhoun nearly came to tears in the emotional locker room after the game.

"He was wired," Napier said. "He did this for us and he was happy we won."

Napier said it was obvious the Hall of Fame coach had his usual adrenalin from the time the team arrived at Gampel Pavilion early Saturday morning.

Said Napier: "During the shootaround someone, I can't remember who, said to him, ‘I'm guessing you're going to be sitting in the chair more than you're going to be standing.' And [Calhoun] was like, ‘I'm guessing you're still going to be asking me [bleeping] stupid questions during this game?' . . . I was like, ‘The big man is back.' "

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