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Branford’s Restinel Lomotey living the dream as UConn walk-on

STORRS >> Restinel Lomotey remembers the feeling he had in October 2014, when he was told he didn’t make the UConn men’s basketball team as a walk-on.It’s a feeling he never had as an athlete.“I was heartbroken,” Lomotey recalled. “It was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had. Out of all my life, all the teams I tried out for, I’d never gotten rejected. That was the first time. It was a new feeling. I didn’t like it at all, and that’s what really motivated me to come back this year and make it.”Virtually from the day of that rejection, he worked hard, vowing not to hear those words a second time come October 2015.

“I worked all year, 365 days, till the next tryout, just to get back on,” he said.

The hard work has paid off. This past October, Lomotey, a Branford native who attended Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, got the good word: he had made the Huskies as a walk-on.

“The minute he found out, he called me,” recalled his sister, Nally Sahin. “He was ecstatic. There was a little bit of disbelief, but I know he’s grateful for the opportunity.”

In fact, Lomotey had nearly jumped the gun. When he called his sister with the news, he had only gotten through the first stage of tryouts. There was still a chance he could get cut; he still had to earn that uniform.

But Lomotey ultimately made it through, and he’s currently a UConn walk-on. He’s not actually listed on the team’s roster, and he doesn’t dress for games, instead watching from the stands or behind the bench. But the kid they call “Russ” is at practice every day, working hard to help make the Huskies a better team as a practice player.

And he’s been able to travel with the team for its two road trips so far — to the Bahamas last month for the Battle 4 Atlantis, where he watched the games standing right behind the Huskies’ bench (“I was too into the game. I couldn’t sit.”), as well as to Madison Square Garden for last week’s bout with Maryland.

“He’s been selfless, coming out, working hard and making sure he challenges our players,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie. “Some days, he’s just gonna play all defense. I’m looking for guys that give multiple efforts, and that’s what Russ has been doing. That’s why Russ has been rewarded with taking a couple of trips with us. Hopefully, those guys realize that’s a privilege and they don’t take it for granted.”

Don’t expect Lomotey to do that.

“I challenge them as much as I can (in practice), make sure they’re doing the right things,” he said of his UConn teammates. “Make sure they’re playing good defense, doing the right things on offense. Make sure they’re being the best basketball player they can be at all times, so that in the game, it’s like an easy thing. Good ball pressure, making sure they’re doing all the right things that K.O. tells them to do on defense, and making sure there are no lapses in their defense.”

Since Metropolitan Business Academy doesn’t field a basketball team, Lomotey played for four years with Branford High (he also ran track). He had a good career and was recruited as a senior by Division III schools like Nichols College and Western New England. But those schools proved too costly, and Lomotey — who boasted a 4.1 GPA — opted for UConn, where in-state tuition was much more affordable.

Despite the much higher skill level, he was determined to make the Husky team.

“It was just a given I was gonna play college basketball, no matter what,” he said.

Lomotey was among the final 10 players in those initial walk-on tryouts last October before falling short.

“It did crush him a little bit,” Sahin recalled. “But I told him, ‘Hey, you made it that far, you’ve just got to push it. Keep being a presence around the program, if not the team.’”

Last year, Lomotey would often play pickup games with other practice players at Gampel Pavilion at 10 or 11 p.m. At one point, a few practice players left the program for various reasons, and the Husky staff contacted him to join the team. But by the time all the paperwork had gone through, UConn’s season was over in early March in an NIT loss to Arizona State.

So far this season, it’s all worked out.

“He loves the atmosphere of D-I basketball; it’s always been his dream,” said Sahin. “I always knew he was a player of that caliber, even if not everyone believed that about him.”

Sahin should know talent and work ethic when she sees it. She coaches three different sports at three different high schools: head coach for Hamden Hall girls volleyball, assistant coach for Career girls basketball and head outdoor track coach at Wilbur Cross. She also works at the Branford Recreation Department and has witnessed the countless hours of work her little brother put in there over the years.

“It far surpasses any of the other Branford athletes I’ve seen,” she said. “He’s always there. Even when I’m not there, he’s always texting me, asking me when he can get in there.”

It’s all paying off for Restinel Lomotey. He’s not quite where he wants to be yet — he still hasn’t quite earned that Husky uniform — but the kid from Branford is living the dream.

“It’s still sinking in,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t even believe it. I just love it here. It’s a great opportunity for me.”

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