McLinton has healthy leg up on competition Sophomore guard to get first Terps start

December 08, 1990|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- When University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams was penciling in his point guards last summer for the upcoming season, there were a bunch of question marks behind junior Walt Williams.

The Terrapins had Matthew "Cougar" Downing, a junior-college player from Kansas who had been signed as insurance if Walt Williams had decided to transfer. And there was sophomore Kevin McLinton, recovering from a serious leg injury.

"I didn't know what to expect from Kevin," Gary Williams said this week. "It took a long time for the leg to heal. There was a question into the summer whether he was going to be able to play."

There no longer are questions, or doubts, surrounding McLinton.

Going into tonight's 7:30 game at Jacksonville (2-3), McLinton has shown that he has recovered fully from the stress fracture that sidelined him most of last season. He also has silenced some critics, who didn't believe he could play at this level.

In fact, McLinton, 6 feet 4, 200 pounds, has played so well for Maryland (2-2) that Williams likely will move him into the starting lineup. McLinton would replace Vince Broadnax at small forward, but would share ball-handling responsibilities with Walt Williams.

"We've got to get some more offense into the game, and we've got to be able to take care of the ball better than we have," Gary Williams said, alluding to the 73 turnovers the Terps have committed, 22 by Walt Williams. "Kevin has proven he can handle the ball."

McLinton has demonstrated other abilities, too. In a 72-59 victory last week over Southern Cal, he helped Broadnax shut down high-scoring Harold Miner in the second half. In a 90-85 defeat at West Virginia, McLinton came in for Williams, who was in foul trouble, to score a career-high 14 points and, more impressively, pull a down a career-high 10 rebounds.

"I have a lot to prove after last year," said McLinton, who started the first three games as a freshman at point guard and played only six games before getting hurt. "I want to show that I do belong here. I want to do whatever I can to help the team win."

The injury itself was strange. During last year's Jacksonville game, McLinton began experiencing sharp pains on the inside of his left leg. Shooting free throws at practice the following week, the pains became more acute and went from his hip to his toe. X-rays showed that McLinton had suffered a stress fracture of the femur bone.

"We took a precaution by not playing," said McLinton, who saw several specialists, including one in Alabama, before beginning rehabilitation in Rockville last spring. "If I had kept playing, my leg would have cracked. It was a serious injury, but it could have been a lot worse.

"I worked very hard to get back into shape. I worked on my quickness. I was in the weight room a lot. I put on 15 pounds, so I could be stronger once the season began. I improved my ball-handling. I knew that people thought of me as a point guard, but I wanted to be an all-purpose player."

The comeback regimen was not without cost. While McLinton fretted about his future, and worked long hours at strengthening the leg, his grades suffered. According to sources at Maryland, McLinton was declared academically ineligible after the spring semester before regaining his playing status this summer.

Said McLinton: "That came with the injury. When I got hurt, I had trouble focusing on my academics. But I did well in summer school, and I'm doing well right now."

Compared with what McLinton has experienced in life, the problems with basketball and school seem to pale in comparison. When he was 8, his father -- former Redskins linebacker Harold "Tank" McLinton -- was killed in a hit-and-run accident while trying to help another motorist.

The younger McLinton, now 19, not only lost his father, but also his idol and best friend. "My father and I had a very special relationship," said McLinton. "I'm still working through it in a way. But it helped me grow up faster."

Now McLinton is being asked to grow up again, this time as a Division I basketball player. The lessons he has learned against teams like USC, West Virginia and Boston College will help him, and Maryland, tonight against Jacksonville.

"I don't know if our ball-handling is the biggest concern, but once we get the ball past half-court, we have a tendency to rush," said McLinton, who is averaging 6.3 points and 4.0 rebounds off the bench. "We take bad shots and other teams get going on the break. Whether or not we change our lineup, we have to be consistent."

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