|UConn’s Shabazz Napier’s (13) and Alex Oriakhi’s local ties have given Massachusetts a claim to the Huskies’ fame. (Michael Heiman/Associated Press)|
UConn scored with Mass. assist
HOUSTON — They are the Connecticut Huskies, but they owe a fair portion of their success to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Three members of Jim Calhoun’s regular rotation have a Greater Boston background. Absent Lowell’s Alex Oriakhi, Dorchester’s Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, or Randolph’s (and Charlestown’s) Shabazz Napier, who knows where UConn would be? The one thing we know for sure is that it wouldn’t be Houston and the 2011 Final Four.
Oriakhi is the starting center, and a mighty man is he. At 6 feet 9 inches and a sculpted 240 pounds, he anchors the interior defense, scores on power moves, and rebounds, boy does he rebound.
Coombs-McDaniel, a 6-7 sophomore forward, does a little of this and a little of that. His biggest claim to fame during this extraordinary UConn postseason came in the Big East semifinals against Pitt, when he hauled down a Kemba Walker attempt at a game-winner and passed it back to Walker for a second try that was successful.
But try to find his name in the game accounts. Everything was Walker, Walker, and more Walker, but without Coombs-McDaniel’s timely rebound, they go into OT and then who knows?
That leaves Napier, a freshman guard listed at 6 feet who has become a truly indispensable member of the UConn cast. In the eyes of UConn fans, his name is quickly becoming synonymous with “spark plug.’’ He plays defense, he makes threes, he takes it to the hoop, he defends, and he gives the heralded Mr. Walker an unofficial breather without having to leave the game by getting him off the ball.
Oriakhi and McDaniels have been a package deal for a long time.
“I remember seeing him in an AAU game,’’ said Oriakhi. “We were beating his team by 40, but he was playing really well, and I said, ‘Who is this kid?’ He was a 6-3 point guard.’’
Before long, they were a duo. They teamed up with Leo Papile’s Boston BABC AAU team. They went to Winchendon Academy together. They transferred to Tilton (N.H.) together. Now they are at UConn.
“We’ve been roommates since we were 16,’’ said Oriakhi.
The ever-blunt Calhoun explains that Coombs-McDaniel “was a throw-in, and I told him that. But by the end of his career at Tilton, he was scoring 44 points in a championship game.’’
Oriakhi was the prize.
“Alex always seized the limelight,’’ Calhoun said. “He was always a big, strong kid.’’
He has developed into a rebound machine who has had double figures 13 times this season, his high being 21 against Texas (10 offensive). He needs to work on his offensive repertoire, which currently consists of put-backs and a jump hook with a range of about 3 feet. He did have 22 double-figure scoring games, but none in the tournament.
But as much as Oriakhi was the superior player of the two, that doesn’t mean Calhoun didn’t appreciate what Coombs-McDaniels brought to the table.
“I took a trip late in his senior year to reassure him we really wanted him,’’ Calhoun said. “I know you won’t believe this, but other coaches were telling him we really weren’t interested in him. We reassured him that he was an important part of our recruiting process.’’
Napier arrived in Storrs in a circuitous manner, having spent two years at Lawrence Academy in Groton before discovering he wasn’t going to graduate and thus would not be able to accept a college scholarship offer.
Under the auspices of the Boston Scholar Athlete Program, which was not in existence when he left Charlestown (where he lived with a grandmother) for Lawrence Academy, he was able to use the credits accumulated in three years at Charlestown, plus the nearly two at Lawrence Academy, to receive a diploma from Charlestown. It was all perfectly legal.
You’ve got to love Napier’s explanation as to what went wrong for him at Charlestown.
“I should have been a better student at Charlestown,’’ he said. “It’s not that the school itself is bad. It’s that there are a lot of kids who come to school and want to be clowns without realizing their future is on the line. I chose to be with the clowns.’’
And now he is in the Final Four. Never, ever underestimate the obstacles standing in the way of a young athlete trying to claw his or her way up out of a very difficult social circumstance.
This is a typically high-energy UConn team, but there is no doubt the feistiest Husky of them all is Napier. He can really defend, and he will do anything he sees fit with the basketball in his hands.
After watching one particularly outrageous Napier maneuver, a veteran coach of my acquaintance observed, “That kid isn’t afraid of anything, including Calhoun.’’
“My assistants would tell you that I am the only thing he’s afraid of,’’ chuckled the mentor. “But I’ll tell you this: You’d have to line up a hell of a dragon, with fire coming out its nostrils, for him to even flinch.
“He is fearless. He has great intestinal fortitude. And he is one of the few freshmen I’ve ever had to come in, play defense, and be satisfied.’’
If UConn wins it all, perhaps Governor Deval Patrick can petition to have the team’s name put down in the books as the “New England Huskies.’’
Well, he can ask.