Friday, November 12, 2010

The Man Behind the Mask

Who was that masked man?

Alex Oriakhi sure didn't look like the player who was often a bit overmatched a year ago as a freshman, kicking off his sophomore campaign in style on Friday night.

For one, there's that protective face mask he has to wear after getting his nose broken by a Charles Okwandu elbow in a pick-up game over a month ago.

Then there's the fact that the Big O snared a career-high 18 rebounds to go with 11 points in UConn's season-opening 79-52 trouncing of Stony Brook. Granted, the Seawolves' leading rebounder from a year ago (Tommy Brenton) is out for the season, and they feature only a couple of players taller than 6-foot-7.

But 18 rebounds is 18 rebounds, especially with Oriakhi playing with a bit more of an edge.

"Last year Alex, unlike his coach, was a terrific person to be around, jovial," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "I told him that's great on bus trips, etc., but not when you're going for a rebound."

So Oriakhi has made it a point to be a bit meaner this season.

"You can't be a nice guy in this game," said the 6-foot-9, 240-pound center. "I'm just trying to listen to what (Calhoun) says and follow guys like Jeff Adrien. He was real mean on the court. I'm just trying to change my demeanor on the court, because it's only going to help me.

"You've got to tell yourself, whoever you're going against can't outwork you."

And no one outworked Oriakhi on Friday night.

"If he's a double-double guy, which I believe he can be ... then we're a different team," said Calhoun.

Oriakhi's tip-in of a Donnell Beverly missed jumper at the first-half buzzer gave UConn a 39-31 lead entering the break. He kicked off a game-breaking, 12-0 run early in the latter half with a dunk off a Kemba Walker feed. Oriakhi also blocked a pair of shots and did his damage despite sitting out the final 8:18, as the Huskies had things well in hand.

Oh, and as for that face mask? Oriakhi has been cleared to shed it after Wednesday's bout with Vermont. Maybe.

"I might keep it," he quipped.

Some other opening night observations:

***UConn started three freshmen (Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey and Jeremy Lamb), believed to be the first time ever under Calhoun in a season-opener. Hasheem Thabeet, Jerome Dyson and A.J. Price each made their collegiate debuts in the Huskies' season-opener in 2006, but Price was technically a sophomore.

***Shabazz Napier scored 12 points in his collegiate debut and hit 4 of 6 3-pointers, including one from about 25 feet out and another seemingly ill-advised trey that banked in.

"That was a tough shot, I was kind of lucky, I guess. If I didn't bank that shot, I would have gotten yelled at, but I felt like it was coming off my fingers (well). I got a shooter's role, I guess."

Clearly, the kid's not afraid to put the ball up.

"That's what they want me to do. They offered me a scholarship to shoot the ball, so I'm going to shoot the ball. They're tough shots, but that's what I'm here for, to make tough shots."

***Lamb hoisted up 14 shots, making only five of them, but had a good all-around debut with 11 points, five boards, two blocks and two steals. He's a keeper.

***Olander got into early foul trouble and played just 10 minutes, scoring just four points. It was a better night than fellow frosh Niels Giffey, who went scoreless with one rebound in 12 minutes.

"Niels had just the worst night a guy could possibly have in every imaginable way," Calhoun said, as only Calhoun could.

***Jamal Coombs-McDaniel chipped in with nine points and seven boards and looked better after failing to graze the rim with his first few shots of the night. Kemba Walker led the way with 18 points.

***The Huskies held Stony Brook to a measly 15 percent (5-for-33) from the floor in the latter half.

"Fifteen percent is a pretty good half (defensively) for anybody," Calhoun noted.

***Seawolves coach Steve Pikiell, the former UConn guard and assistant coach, likes what he saw from the young Huskies.

"They play well together, they're a better passing team," Pikiell said. "You can tell (Calhoun is) excited about these guys. They've got good size, they play hard, they're kind of intriguing. I think people are going to be surprised. Coach will do a good job of coaching 'em up."

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