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Big moment puts UConn’s Brimah in spotlight

As a soccer player in his native Ghana, Amida Brimah never used his hands for sports. It showed when he arrived at Connecticut’s basketball practices.

“He couldn’t catch the ball,” teammate DeAndre Daniels said Friday.

Acknowledging they had a lot of work to do, the UConn coaching staff made the 7-foot Brimah one of their pet projects this season. The 20-year-old freshman transitioned from the soccer field to the hardwood just four years ago upon arriving in America, so the sculpting has involved a lot of attention – also known as yelling – from coach Kevin Ollie.

“I used to hate it when the coach didn’t say anything to me,” said Ollie, who spent 13 years in the NBA after being a four-year starter at UConn. “That means I wasn’t a part of the rotation or anything. I’m going to be on those guys. We need him to rebound.”

The hounding worked Thursday during the Huskies’ 89-81 overtime victory against Saint Joseph’s. Ollie rode Brimah from the sideline throughout the game. The freshman responded by securing an offensive rebound with 37 seconds left, was fouled on his successful baby hook and made the free throw to tie the game and send it to OT.

“It was just a big moment,” Ollie said in First Niagara Center. “He grew up.”

The seventh-seeded Huskies will need more from Brimah tonight when they face No. 2 Villanova in the East Regional.

Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier, who’s 6-1, led the team in rebounding with 5.9 per game this season. To earn an upset, the Huskies need their big men to be stronger on the glass than their ballhandlers.

“That’s our problem with the team, so he always has faith in me to rebound,” Brimah said.

The rail-thin Brimah, who’s listed at 217 pounds, will be competing against much bulkier Villanova forwards. He won’t battle nerves, though. His newness to basketball prevents him from realizing just how big the stage is during the NCAA Tournament.

Brimah moved to Florida at age 16 after countryman Nana Baafi, an assistant coach for St. Thomas University near Miami, spotted him during a recruiting trip and became his guardian.

“I was going to school one day and he saw me and was like I’m wasting my talent in Ghana, and he brought me here,” Brimah said. “I liked soccer, that was my first sport, but when I got here I realized I could be better in basketball, so I just started liking basketball.

“I used to sleep in the gym all the time. My guardian worked at a university, so before he’d go to work he’d drop me off and I’d just practice all the time.”

He still needed more practice upon arriving at Connecticut, but the work is paying off. “He’s made a lot of progress since the day he stepped on campus,” Daniels said. “Now he’s catching lobs and rebounding and blocking shots. He’s just doing everything. He wants to be great, and at the end of the day he just wants to help this team win.”