By Dylan Butler
STORRS, CONN. — For Taliek Brown, Saturday’s highly-anticipated and much-ballyhooed match-up with fellow New York City point guard Omar Cook was about what he expected. When the LeFrak City native announced his intentions to attend the University of Connecticut and when Christ the King’s Cook signed with St. John’s, Brown knew their first meeting would be special.
“As long as we’re both in school, this is the way it’s always going to be,” Brown said after UConn’s thrilling 82-80 win over St. John’s at Gampel Pavilion. “It was really fun.”
Brown, who had struggled early in the season, broke out against the Red Storm. In front of 10,027 rabid Huskies fans and a national television audience, the 6-foot-1 floor general, who along with Cook and Seton Hall’s Andre Barrett were known as the “Holy Trinity” of New York City point guards last year, had a career-high 12 assists — eight in the second half — to go along with six points and five rebounds in a season-high 27 minutes.
It was a far cry from his nine-point, two-assist performance in a season-low 17 minutes in UConn’s 85-68 loss at Boston College last Wednesday when Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun hinted Brown’s starting job may have been in jeopardy.”
“Since the BC game, I felt it was my fault because I really didn’t lead the team the way I should lead them,” Brown said. “So, I spoke to coach and he said the ball is mine. He just put the ball in my hands and said lead the team.”
And Brown did just that in the second half against St. John’s. After two points and four assists in the first half, the former St. John’s Prep star stepped up his game and helped spark the Huskies second half comeback.
With UConn trailing 40-31 at the half, Brown teamed with junior forward Johnnie Selvie to get the Huskies back in the game.
After a missed jumper by Willie Shaw, Caron Butler dished to Brown who found Selvie on the break for a layup to cut the Red Storm’s lead to 44-37. It was the first time UConn was able to get out and run on St. John’s.
“I said to him, ‘How you are going to be judged this year is how many games we win because you are the driver of the race car and we need you at the point guard,’” Calhoun said. “I think the thing we did exceptionally well — and I give Taliek 100 percent credit for this — we went from defense to offense, bang, bang.”
Brown came right back and found Selvie for a dunk. On a Brown bounce pass on the break, Albert Mouring scored the bucket while drawing the fourth foul on Anthony Glover. His made free throw cut St. John’s lead to just one, 52-51. Brown’s pass to Mouring, who drained a 16-foot jumper, capped the Huskies amazing 19-3 run, putting UConn ahead, 60-52.
“This was wonderful for me,” Brown said. “This was the kind of game I dream of and then playing it against somebody I know, it made it even more of a dream for me because I knew he was going to come at me. And I can’t back down. I know everybody’s watching at home so I knew I had to step up.”
Cook was equally phenomenal for the Red Storm. His 15 assists were the most ever by a Big East player against UConn and the most by an opposing player at Gampel Pavilion. He also had 11 points and six rebounds in the full 45 minutes for St. John’s.
He too was in control, running the Red Storm with fluidity and not some of the reckless abandon witnessed in the early portion of the season where forced shots and turnovers were as much a part of his game as assists. Both point guards had just two turnovers apiece.
After a 23-point, eight-assist game in the Red Storm’s 89-64 win over Virginia Tech, Cook’s performance against No. 10 Connecticut was good enough to earn him co-Big East Rookie of the Week honors, along with Huskies forward Caron Butler.
“I really made a change in my game,” Cook said. “He ran his team well, I ran our team well.”
But while Brown embraced the first head-to-head match-up with Cook since the summer of 1999 during the AAU circuit, Cook said the emphasis was more on the battle of Big East foes.
“I didn’t see it as one on one, I saw it as St. John’s vs. Connecticut,” he said. “They won, but we really picked up our game.”
Cook’s maturation is not lost on St. John’s head coach Mike Jarvis.
“I was very proud of Omar because this was not Omar Cook vs. Taliek Brown, this was Omar Cook — the lead guard for St.John’s — against Connecticut,” Jarvis said. “Omar showed me a tremendous amount of maturity today in running his team and doing what he was supposed to do and not getting caught up in the hype of him against Taliek because it wasn’t him against Taliek.”
The two spoke briefly before the game and the eagerly awaited match-up started with a simple tapping of fists at center court before the game. Afterwards, in an empty Gampel Pavilion Cook walked across the court to where Brown was meeting with family members. The two hugged briefly before parting ways, knowing each represented the city well. And knowing this was only the beginning.