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Terry Connolly's country road led to Richmond


COLLEGE PARK -- Not long after Richmond concluded Syracuse's one-night stand in the NCAA tournament Thursday night at Cole Field House, Terry Connolly was talking about his prior life as a college basketball player.

"Alderson-Broaddus, West Virginia State, Davis and Elkins," he was saying. "You know, all those schools in West Virginia. That's who we played. Concord. Fairmont State."

It was West Virginia's version of the Big East, just without the big and a few other essentials, and it was where Connolly landed, playing for Shepherd College after graduating from Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick.

That he would wind up beating Syracuse in the NCAAs, contributing a volley of points and rebounds and assists, is a turn not easily reconciled. From beating Alderson-Broaddus to beating Syracuse: Are we really supposed to believe this?

"If it were any other kid besides Terry Connolly, maybe you would wonder how it happened," said Tom Dickman, his high school coach. "But this is one of the toughest, most-determined kids around."

No one wanted him out of high school. No one else wanted him when he was eager to transfer after two years of 20-point games at Shepherd. Richmond took him only because Dickman knew an assistant there, one of those buddy deals.

Of course, the NCAA tournament is always good for a couple of these fables. Everyone else was simply wrong about him. He has gained 30 pounds since high school, learned to play guard and contributed steadily for Richmond the last two years.

His game belongs on black-and-white film, a precious period piece. He makes the right passes and defensive switches, sets rigid screens, shoots wisely, comes up with loose balls and offensive rebounds. He wants to be a coach. You can tell from the top row.

"No one has gotten more out of his talent," said Dickman, who was in the stands Thursday night. "He's just so smart, so fundamentally sound, has no ego. It was a delight to coach, and now it's a delight to watch."

Syracuse certainly saw enough. Connolly had 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists, the sum of it truly emblematic of the game, his guile more than a match for the tall and talented on the other side.

Other Richmond players had big nights, but Connolly's clearly was discouraging for Syracuse. It was as if the Orangemen could not believe they were being done in by the slowest player on the floor, not a particularly adept shooter or ballhandler.

But done in they were. His offensive rebound led to a basket that ended a Syracuse rally early in the second half. His three-pointer put the lead at 10 with nine minutes left. His snatch of a loose ball led to a basket that kept the lead at eight with 4:43 left.

Perhaps most important, when Syracuse shot for the lead and missed with 75 seconds left, Connolly was the one who went up higher than Billy Owens and LeRon Ellis and grabbed the game's biggest rebound. Richmond turned that into two points.

His is a rugged, no-fear style learned on Frederick's public courts and in the back yard. His high school teammates often took him to gyms in Frederick's inner city, where he would be the only white face. "Either you were tough enough or you went home," he said.

He also was the youngest of five brothers. "My parents split up when I was little, and I was with my brothers a lot," he said. "They were all athletic, and I was always playing sports with older kids. I was 13 playing with 20-year-olds. That'll teach you a few lessons."

Said Dickman, "They all kind of have this nasty streak in 'em."

The little brother got the most basketball talent. He was a 6-4 center on two state championship teams, outplaying Danny Ferry and Jerrod Mustaf along the way. Still, major-college scouts were unanimous and ardent in their lack of interest.

They all said he was simply the wrong size. "It was like he was a Division I player in a Division II body," Dickman said.

That was still the criticism when he wanted to leave Shepherd two years later. West Virginia wasn't interested. Xavier and James Madison didn't follow up. Dickman finally called his friend at Richmond, where they play a smart style suited to Connolly.

"It was a shot-in-the-dark thing," Dickman said. "This was June, long after rosters are normally filled. They just happened to have a scholarship open. I told them Terry was perfect. They said, 'Are you sure?' They basically took him on my word."

From Frederick to Shepherd to Richmond to beating Syracuse. He will keep a videotape of Thursday night's game. The shattering noise. The hot gym. His succession of big shots, big rebounds. Syracuse going down, down, crash.

"One of the assistant coaches said to me in the locker room, 'It's a long way from Shepherd, huh?' " Connolly said. "Pretty unreal."

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