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Queens ballers shine at Big East Tournament

For Taliek Brown, Uka Agbai, Mark McCarroll and Charlie Villanueva, the Big East men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden meant more than just a homecoming.

For Brown, it was a chance to help lead Connecticut to another conference title in his senior year. For Agbai, a fifth-year senior at Boston College, the trip home was a final opportunity to shine at the World’s Most Famous Arena after fracturing his neck last year.

For McCarroll, it was finally a chance to contribute at Pittsburgh after two frustrating seasons, while Villanueva, a freshman at UConn who was his first postseason trip to the Garden, was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight following an injury to Player of the Year candidate Emeka Okafor.

The Floor General

He’s been forever linked with Omar Cook and Andre Barrett, one-third of the highly touted CHSAA point guard triumvirate four years ago.

But Brown, not quite as flashy as the other two guards, has separated himself as being quietly consistent in his four years at UConn.

And on Friday night, the former St. John’s Prep star out of LeFrak City was in the spotlight after breaking Connecticut’s all-time assist mark, previously set by Tate George.

“It means a lot to get the assist record on this floor. This is the Mecca of basketball. It’s where I’m from,” Brown said after the Huskies’ 84-67 win over Villanova in the semifinals. “Everybody would dream of doing something like that. I’m happy for myself. I did something while I was here for four years.”

A night later, Brown, who was named to the Big East All-tournament team, helped lead No. 9 UConn to its second title in three years. He scored eight points and had six assists in the 61-58 win over Pittsburgh.

The Warrior

A year ago Uka Agbai wasn’t even thinking about playing at Madison Square Garden. The former Molloy standout was happy to be walking after suffering a pedicle fracture that was fragmented in three pieces near the fifth cervical vertebra on the right side of his neck Dec. 1, 2002.

Doctors told Agbai he was very close to being paralyzed.

After red-shirting last year, Agbai has started all 32 games this year for Boston College. The Queens Village native has averaged 10.8 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game for the Eagles.

“I was a Knicks fan growing up and when I’m out there I feel like one of the Knicks,” Agbai said. “Initially I didn’t know if I’d be able to play (after the injury), but once I could move around, God allowed me to come back stronger and smarter.”

After scoring 11 points in a 68-57 win over Georgetown in the first round of the tournament, Agbai had 13 points and played tough defense on Hakim Warrick down the stretch in a 57-54 win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals last Thursday.

“I think Warrick is an outstanding player; obviously, he is. There’s something that we wanted to do with him. Uka finally did it on the last couple of possessions,” Boston College coach Al Skinner said. “I thought it was great defense.”

Agbai had nine points in a 62-53 loss to Pittsburgh in the Big East semifinals Friday night.

The Forgotten Forward

Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan for Mark McCarroll.

After a stellar high school career, which saw the 6-foot-10 forward average 11.4 points as a senior at Christ the King and 12.5 points per game in one year at Connecticut’s Milford Academy, McCarroll sat out his freshman year due to a chronic knee injury.

For the next two years, the Jamaica native would play a reserve role for former Panthers coach Ben Howland, who took the head coaching job at UCLA.

But this has been a breakout season for McCarroll under first year coach Jamie Dixon. McCarroll’s minutes are up and so is his point production. He is averaging 5.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game as the Panthers sixth man and scored a career-high 26 against Georgia Dec. 30.

After a four-point, five-rebound outing in a 74-61 win over Virginia Tech in the Big East quarterfinals last Thursday, McCarroll had five points in 15 minutes in a 62-53 win over Boston College in the semifinals.

McCarroll wrapped up his Big East tournament, scoring a team-high 11 points and grabbing six boards in a 61-58 loss to Connecticut in the final.

The Freshman

Charlie Villanueva could not have picked a better time to play one of his best games in a UConn uniform in his first postseason game at the Garden last Thursday night.

With Big East Player of the Year Emeka Okafor dressed in street clothes due to a stress fracture in his back, the former Newtown star from Woodhaven replaced the senior in the starting lineup.

With Okafor urging him on during timeouts, Villanueva recorded his fourth double-double of the season, scoring 16 points and pulling down 13 rebounds in 32 minutes — 13 more than his average output in a 66-58 win over Notre Dame in the Big East quarterfinals.

“It’s a dream come true playing in New York … especially that I’m a New York guy,” said the 6-foot-11 Big East All-Rookie Team selection, who blocked four shots — two coming on the same play. “It felt good. I felt real confident out there.”

In the postgame press conference, UConn coach Jim Calhoun praised Villanueva, who started his third game of the year.

“He could be a very special player for us,” said Calhoun, after UConn won its 20th conference tournament game in its last 25 tries. “He is without question one of the nicest kids I’ve ever dealt with.”

Villanueva had five points and five rebounds in the Huskies’ 84-67 win over Villanova in the Big East semifinals but left the game in the second half with an ankle injury.

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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