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Playing 'overtime’: Maryland lacrosse player Thomas O’Connell makes crossover move with St. John’s basketball

St. John's guard Thomas O'Connell dribbles during a game this past season. The former Terps short-stick defensive midfielder appeared in only nine games for the Red Storm, but suiting up for the Division I program was a dream realized for the New York native.
St. John's guard Thomas O'Connell dribbles during a game this past season. The former Terps short-stick defensive midfielder appeared in only nine games for the Red Storm, but suiting up for the Division I program was a dream realized for the New York native. (Courtesy of St. John's Athletics)

As a child, Thomas O’Connell accompanied his father for the 20-minute drive from their home in Mineola, New York, to attend St. John’s men’s basketball games. He later participated in the program’s summer camps, worked as a ball boy and avidly followed their road games on television — all while dreaming of playing for the university one day.

So when he finally got the chance to don a Red Storm jersey and enter the court for an exhibition game against Queen’s College at Carnesecca Arena on Oct. 30, O’Connell reveled in the experience.

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“It was unreal,” he recalled recently. “I walked out, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really here. I’m really doing this.’ During warmups, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was awesome. Guys were getting a feel for the court, but for me, it was so much more than that. It was everything I had seen on TV while growing up, and then I was living it.”

While many people were familiar with Pat Spencer’s path from an attackman for the Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse team to a graduate student point guard for Northwestern, O’Connell, 22, was making a similar journey of his own, leaving behind a four-year career as a short-stick defensive midfielder at Maryland for one season as a graduate student point guard at St. John’s this past winter.

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Maryland's Thomas O'Connell defends Duke's Kevin Quigley during the 2018 NCAA Division I semifinals at Gillette Stadium on May 26, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Maryland's Thomas O'Connell defends Duke's Kevin Quigley during the 2018 NCAA Division I semifinals at Gillette Stadium on May 26, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound O’Connell did not enjoy quite the success that the 6-3, 205-pound Spencer, a Davidsonville resident and Boys’ Latin graduate, did. The former appeared in only nine games, scoring zero points on 0-for-2 shooting, grabbing two rebounds, making one steal, and committing two turnovers in 13 minutes. But the sparse playing time did not diminish O’Connell’s love for basketball or the Red Storm.

“For me, it was everything I could have asked for,” he said. “I enjoyed every second I was on the court. I got in a couple games. That’s another thing that I just can’t describe. It was awesome. I get chills now just thinking about it. Just being a part of it, in my head, I was in overtime.”

Besides picking up the sport at the age of 5, O’Connell almost seemed destined to play basketball. His grandfather James was a high school referee for more than 30 years, and his grandfather’s brother Andrew played at Niagara. His aunt Theresa graduated from Lafayette ranked fourth in program history in career blocks (124) and eighth in assists (311) and steals (205). An uncle, James, played at Central Connecticut State, and another uncle, Andrew, played at Albany.

But in the eighth grade, Thomas O’Connell dropped baseball for lacrosse, and his prowess with a stick drew the attention of schools such as Army West Point, Michigan, North Carolina and Yale. And when Maryland offered a scholarship to O’Connell while he was a sophomore at Chaminade High School, he agreed to pursue a career in lacrosse over basketball.

“That moment was very exciting for me,” he said. “But it was also very tough because I knew I’d be giving up basketball in the future. It was just one of those things where we didn’t know, and we were just going to try to take it and run with it and see how it played out.”

But O’Connell, who scored more than 1,000 points in high school, could not get rid of basketball that easily. He played pickup games with his teammates and other students at Maryland during the offseason. Senior attackman Jared Bernhardt, a two-sport athlete in lacrosse and football, was impressed with O’Connell’s on-court skills.

“I was curious because I had heard that he was a really good player in high school,” Bernhardt said. “He was pretty smooth.”

St. John's guard Thomas O'Connell, second from left, sits on the bench with a black-eye as he greets a teammate leaving the floor during a game against Marquette on Saturday, March 7, 2020, at Madison Square Garden in New York.
St. John's guard Thomas O'Connell, second from left, sits on the bench with a black-eye as he greets a teammate leaving the floor during a game against Marquette on Saturday, March 7, 2020, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (Bebeto Matthews / AP)

With one month left in his final season of lacrosse in 2019, O’Connell — who graduated from College Park with a bachelor’s degree in finance — decided to explore playing basketball with his last year of eligibility. He applied to Hofstra, Manhattan and Stony Brook, but as soon as he was accepted to St. John’s to pursue a master’s in sports management, his decision was made.

Terps lacrosse coach John Tillman was not surprised that O’Connell found a spot with the Red Storm as a walk-on.

“Thomas is a mentally tough kid,” Tillman said. “No one’s going to outwork him. He’s the type of guy that whatever he’s got to do, he’s going to do, and that’s why he’s so successful not only in basketball, but in whatever he does in life. He’s just got the right approach, and he was great here in so many different ways.”

Although he didn’t get too many opportunities to play like his basketball role model, former Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, O’Connell enjoyed some thrilling moments. He warmed up on the floor at Madison Square Garden before a 70-68 win against West Virginia on Dec. 7 and cheered on his teammates as they overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 6:30 for a 75-63 victory over Georgetown in the first round of the Big East tournament on March 11. And he will be part of an answer to a trivia question as the tournament quarterfinal between St. John’s and Creighton was canceled at halftime a day later as professional and amateur sports leagues shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said O’Connell missed only one practice and that was because he forced O’Connell to return to Maryland to receive the Dick Edell “Big Man” Award on Oct. 5 from the lacrosse program. Anderson was so impressed with O’Connell’s contributions that he put him on a full scholarship for the spring and fall 2020 semesters.

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“A lot of guys when they walk on, they want to come in and say, ‘Hey, Coach, I want to play, I want to do this, I want to do that.’ He did none of that,” Anderson said. “He said, ‘Coach, I just want to be a part of it. This is my dream.’ He’s been great around our guys, he’s been in great in our locker room.”

O’Connell will return to lacrosse after he was selected by the New York Lizards in the Major League Lacrosse’s supplemental draft March 3. The Lizards were scheduled to open the season May 30 against the Boston Cannons, but the start of the league’s season was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

O’Connell said he will look back fondly on his brief time with the Red Storm.

“The St. John’s basketball program meant so much to me that it didn’t matter what was happening,” he said. “I just wanted to do whatever I could – whether it was in practice or a game or whatever – to make sure guys were ready to succeed on the court. I could have been in the stands. I was supporting the team either way. It didn’t matter to me.”

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