Local flavor lifts UConn to the top of the heap

Posted by Danny Ventura at 1:53 pm

From head man Jim Calhoun down to reserve Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, Connecticut’s march to the NCAA men’s basketball title was sprinkled with good old-fashioned home cooking.

Last night’s 53-41 win over Butler made Calhoun the oldest coach (68) to win an NCAA men’s basketball title. The championship was Calhoun’s third at the school, making him just the fifth coach to win at least three titles joining a crowd which includes the likes of John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight.

Not bad for a Braintree kid who spent two years at Dedham (1969-1970) before taking over the Northeastern program. Jerry Morelli was one of the millions watching UConn pull away from Butler in the second half. An assistant to Calhoun at Dedham High, Morelli thought he was getting flashbacks seeing some of the Huskies’ plays.

“A lot of what they ran was exactly what we did at Dedham,” said Morelli, who succeeded Calhoun at Dedham. “The only difference is that he has 6-foot-10 kids running the plays.”

Morelli said there is no secret to why Calhoun has thrived at Northeastern and Connecticut.

“He has such a passion for the game and the fundamentals that go along with it. We’d practice for hours on the fundamentals,” recalled Morelli. “He’s very demanding of his team, but just look at how many kids he coached made it to the NBA.”

Morelli ended his coaching career at BC High in 2004 after leading the Eagles to the Division 1 South sectional finals. Ironically, his replacement, Bill Loughnane, played for Calhoun at Northeastern from 1977-1980. A three-year starter for the Huskies, Loughnane still holds the single-game assist record (15) and ranks third on the all-time assist chart (500).

“It’s always nice when you know someone and see him do well,” said Loughnane. “I know my kids were sitting there cheering him on.”

As for Calhoun’s reputation for being tough on point guards, Loughnane chuckled when discussing his former coach.

“One thing he said always stuck with me,” he said. “He would always say if you don’t like the yelling, you can always sit on the bench because I am going to let you know when you made a mistake.”

As Calhoun, Morelli and Loughnane would be the first to attest, you’re only as good as your players. Last night, one of those locals played a large part in the win. Lowell’s Alex Oriahki (Brooks/Tilton) was a beast in the paint with 11 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.

His former high school and AAU teammate Jamal Coombs-McDaniel chipped in with a couple of points. Coombs-McDaniel (a Dorchester native) began his high school career at Charlestown High, spending a year on the junior varsity before winding up at Tilton. Both Oriahki and Coombs-McDaniels verbally committed to UConn as sophomores in high school.

The third member of the Local Three, Shabazz Napier, had a similar start to Coombs-McDaniels. The freshman point guard spent three years at Charlestown before transferring to Lawrence Academy. Napier played 27 minutes last night, scoring four points, but his ability to run the offense allowed tournament MVP Kemba Walker to freelance a bit more.

As anyone who saw Napier play at Charlestown and Lawrence Academy can attest, he loves the big stage. Check out his comments in the Hartford Courant following the win.

“You can’t call us Kemba and the little guys anymore,” he said. ”Now I feel we’re playing to the max and helping him out. He’s still our hero. He’s still the guy he was in the beginning of the year. But we all understand how to work around him.”

And having the locals guys around made it all work in the end.

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