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Playing at Maryland is a homecoming of sorts for Niagara coach Joe Mihalich

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Sports,College,Kevin Dunleavy,Terps,University of Maryland

Coach started career as DeMatha assistant

Since it aired Sunday night, rave reviews have poured in for ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on former N.C. State coach Jim Valvano and his charmed run to the 1983 NCAA championship.

One of the viewers who had a special appreciation was Niagara basketball coach Joe Mihalich. His first job out of college was as coach of the freshman team at DeMatha when the stars of that N.C. State team, Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg, were seniors at the Hyattsville school.

"Jimmy Valvano was around many times after a lot of the games," Mihalich said. "We'd go out and eat pizza and all that stuff. For me, a young guy who didn't know what he was doing, it was surreal."

NIT first round
Niagara at Maryland
When » Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Where » Comcast Center
TV » ESPN2

When Niagara (19-13) plays at Maryland (22-11) on Tuesday night in the opening round of the NIT, it will be a homecoming for Mihalich, 56, who took his team to practice Monday night at DeMatha.

It's also a chance for Mihalich to unite with his twin 24-year-old sons, Matt, an assistant coach at Bishop O'Connell, and Tony, a volunteer track coach at George Mason. Like their father, both came to the D.C. area to begin their careers.

"I have mixed emotions," Joe Mihalich said. "I do believe coaching is a wonderful profession. It can be a noble thing to do. The other hand, as a parent, you worry about opportunity, job security, financial security. But they're happy. I always say you're always as happy as your unhappiest kid."

Job security has never been a problem for Mihalich, who has had just three stops in his career. After three years at DeMatha, he returned to his alma mater, La Salle, and worked 17 years as an assistant before taking over at Niagara in 1998. In 15 seasons, Mihalich has more wins (265) than any coach in Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference history.

Another Tuesday would be one of the most cherished of his career, though he realizes the deck is stacked against his team. Niagara got an automatic bid in the NIT by winning the MAAC regular season behind all-conference sophomores Antoine Mason (18.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and Juan'ya Green (16.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 5.0 apg). But those are two of the four guards the Purple Eagles start, none taller than 6-foot-6.

"I'm thrilled we're in the tournament," said Mihalich, who has taken Niagara to two NCAA tournaments. "I just wish we didn't have to play a team as good as Maryland."

As always, Mihalich will be relying on the lessons learned from his father, Joe, a former philosophy instructor at La Salle and a baseball player in the New York Yankees' farm system, and from legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten. More than 30 years later, Matt Mihalich is learning from Wootten's son, Joe, at O'Connell.

"I take him with me every day I step on that practice floor. My assistant coaches feel like they know him, I reference him so much," Joe Mihalich said. "It became one of the most fortunate things that happened to me in my lifetime, to be with Morgan Wootten, the greatest coach of all time at any level."

kdunleavy@washingtonexaminer.com

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