Okafor learns his lessons well at UConn

Freshman's maturation at center has been a key to Huskies' success

NCAA Tournament

March 24, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The championship game of the BB&T Classic Dec. 3 was settled in the paint, where tournament MVP Lonny Baxter banged his way to 24 points and 10 rebounds. It was the senior's 110th game with Maryland. It was the fourth at Connecticut for Emeka Okafor, and Baxter should know that the freshman center is a very quick study.

"Emeka had one B-plus this past semester, and that's only because he spent extra time on a paper and it was late," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "He was two minutes late for a meeting once, and you need to understand how much that upset him. I've been around a lot of driven people, and he's a very unique person."

Chukwuemeka Noubisi Okafor is a second-generation American from Bellaire, Texas, who wanted to attend Harvard until he discovered that Ivy League programs don't contend for NCAA basketball championships. Connecticut won a title in 1999 with Jake Voskuhl, another center from the Houston suburbs. Okafor has a greater upside, but his perspective is as bright as his potential.

Okafor's father, Pius, fled Nigeria's civil strife in the late 1970s. He studied at Grambling and found his way to the University of Houston, and his son is more interested in Phi Beta Kappa than Phi Slamma Jamma.

"The fact that we know what our parents went through, the suffering they endured," Okafor said, when asked of the perception that athletes with newer roots in America take scholarship opportunities more seriously. "You don't want to disappoint them."

Okafor visited his father's homeland in 1989 and '98, and said the poverty "blew his mind." He arrived in Storrs last semester, but by the end of this year he could be a junior academically. He entered college with nine Advanced Placement credits, in microeconomics, macroeconomics and statistics.

Like Baxter, Okafor is soft-spoken but resolute. He bounced back from that whipping at the MCI Center and blocked eight shots in Connecticut's next game. Okafor gets 4.15 blocks per game, the second-best figure in the nation. When the Huskies won at Arizona in late January, he had nine blocks, 15 rebounds and 19 points. His maturation has helped Connecticut to 12 straight victories, but Okafor was disappointed in his effort in the most recent win.

Okafor, who's 6 feet 9 and seems lighter than his listed 240 pounds, was manhandled in Friday night's East semifinal, where the shorter, stockier Rolan Roberts went right at him. Southern Illinois dumped the ball down low to Roberts on its first seven possessions, and Okafor was off balance all night. He had just one block as Roberts had 24 of the Salukis' 59 points.

Maryland used similar strategy when it knocked off Kentucky in the nightcap at the Carrier Dome, but it came with a twist.

Baxter was missing in action in the first half, when he had as many fouls (two) as points. For the first time in his career, Baxter spoke up during intermission and told coach Gary Williams to get him the ball. He was speaking to the director of the chorus, and Baxter got 15 points in the second half, as he hit five of his six shots and all four of his three throws.

Calhoun said, "If we get in a wrestling contest, we lose." Maryland has always started its offense from the inside out, and the Terps vowed to do the same today.

"If that's what they said, let them bring it on," said Okafor. "I was playing to block, and that was my mistake. I have to give up the blocks and concentrate more on positioning against a player like Baxter. Back then [the BB&T meeting], I was still thinking in terms of high school basketball. Now I know what a college game's like."

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