KEENE, N.H. — Anthony Mariano had a pretty impressive basketball résumé when he arrived at Keene State College: He was a 2009 all-Naugatuck Valley League selection and a 1,000-point scorer, accomplishments that made him CN’s pick as the Naugatuck boys’ hoops player of the decade.
But that résumé meant little, as soon as he suited up for the Owls.
“No one knows who you are,” Mariano said of beginning his collegiate career. “You have to make a name for yourself all over again.”
Consider Mariano’s name remade. The 6-2 swingman was honored Tuesday as the Little East Conference rookie of the year, after averaging 12.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
“We knew Anthony had some real upside, talent-wise,” Keene State head coach Rob Colbert said. “But I’ve had only two rookies of the year in my 11 years here, and I can’t think of a freshman that had more of an impact.”
Mariano, a gifted shooter who averaged 23.3 points per game a senior at NHS, began the season as a bench player but soon proved too valuable to keep off the floor.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t playing as well as I know I’m capable of,” he said. “I think things started to click around Christmas, and I started cracking the starting lineup.”
The freshman got his first chance to start Dec. 5 at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. Keene State had just lost by a dozen to previously winless Tufts, a game in which Mariano scored 14 points. Colbert inserted the former Greyhound, in place of all-conference forward Derek D’Amours, and Mariano responded with a solid, if not spectacular 11 points, four rebounds and two steals.
Three games later, he got another shot, at home against Pennsylvania College of Technology, and scorched the nets for 18 points on eight-of-10 shooting, including two three-pointers. After that performance, there was no taking him out. Mariano started the Owls’ last 16 games, helping the young team to a 13-12 regular-season record and a Little East Conference tournament berth.
Kevin Wesche, who coached Mariano for four years at Naugy, was not surprised to see his protégé excel as a freshman.
“I thought he was good enough that he’d get into the starting lineup at some point this season,” Wesche said. “He started a little earlier than one might have expected, but he’s always been good at creating his own shots, and they ran some nice screens for him up there.”
Mariano’s real breakout came Jan. 12 in a thrilling, 96-90 win over Western Connecticut, a school that recruited him heavily and featured former NVL foes Gary Robinson and Mark Redding. With about 90 seconds to play and his team trailing, 86-85, Mariano drilled a fadeaway trey with a hand in his face to give Keene State a two-point edge. After the Colonials tied it, Mariano trotted back down court and connected again from the same spot, a shot that proved to be the game-winner.
“It was awesome,” Mariano told KeeneOwls.com, after the victory. “The guys were looking for me, and I was just spotting up and shooting.”
The borough native finished that contest with 22 points—15 from long distance—and 11 boards. It was the first time he led the team in scoring; he paced the offense twice more this season, including a career-best 29-point effort Jan. 19 in a loss to Eastern Connecticut.
Successful as he was, Mariano knows he has work to do during the offseason. His shooting percentages (40.3 field goal, 34.7 three-point, 65.5 free throw) all could use a boost, and he’s identified a couple other areas of improvement too.
“I’d like to get stronger,” said Mariano, who’s listed as a slender 185 pounds. “And I want to get quicker. I’m going to work on my foot speed.”
Wesche adds he’d like to see Mariano attack the rim with more confidence but has no doubt he will dedicate himself to making gains.
“He did a lot of work [at NHS] on his own,” Wesche said. “He’d be in here shooting before the season. … And he really stuck to the conditioning program [Keene State] gave him.”
Colbert, whose teams have twice reached the Division III sweet 16, seems to see in Mariano the same qualities Wesche does. The Keene State coach believes the Owls will be LEC championship contenders within the next season or two and expects the local guy to be a leader.
“He’s a major cog in that wheel,” Colbert said.