COLLEGE PARK -- Kevin McLinton never had to convince himself that he could contribute more to the Maryland basketball team than just hustle, intensity and defense.
Though few outside the Maryland locker room knew what McLinton, a 6-foot-3 junior from Silver Spring, was capable of if asked to do something other than verbally light a fire under the team, McLinton always knew.
"I always knew that I could shoot. It was there. It just had to come out at the right time," said McLinton.
Call yesterday the right time, as McLinton added a scoring touch to his rapidly developing offensive repertoire to help the Terps turn back West Virginia, 101-91, before 7,775 at Cole Field House.
McLinton had 20 points, one less than his career high, notched last year against North Carolina, shooting 8-for-10 from the field, including two three-pointers to go along with eight rebounds and four assists, to keep Maryland from squandering the lead.
"I just think Kevin is our rock," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "I trust Kevin.
"Vince [Broadnax] and Kevin are the dependable guys, the guys who work hard and do the little things you need."
McLinton did a lot of little things yesterday to help move Maryland to 5-0, its best start since the 1981-82 season, when the Terps won their first six games.
"He's just improved his game so much," said senior guard Walt Williams, who had a game-high 31 points. "In the off-season, he came in and worked on his shot, so now he gives us more to work with."
McLinton steadied the wobbly Terps in the second half, both at the beginning, when the Mountaineers (2-2) were threatening to get into the game, and near the end, when West Virginia tried to rally from a 13-point deficit.
McLinton made a pretty running hook with 18 minutes, 48 seconds left in the game, then stole a pass and drove to the basket, finishing with a spinning layup to give Maryland a 51-45 lead, when the Mountaineers were closing in on the lead.
Then, after West Virginia had whittled a 73-60 deficit to one point at 86-85 with 3:53 left, McLinton took over. In the last 1:40, he hit a clutch jumper, made two free throws and got the rebound from a missed free throw by Garfield Smith to allow the Terps to run down the clock.
"Kevin's just a great player, and that was just another great play," said junior center Evers Burns, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. "If he doesn't get that rebound, then they have a chance to maybe get back in the game."
A good share of Maryland's day was spent giving West Virginia a chance to get back in the game, through inconsistent defense and scrappy Mountaineers play.
The Terps would run off two or three baskets, threatening to put West Virginia away, only to see the Mountaineers come back, either by hitting key three-point shots, or on put-backs on the offensive glass.
"We had to play well to win that game," said Gary Williams. "They are a quick team, and they get on the glass. They are the best rebounding team that we have played so far."
The entire game was seemingly played in fits and stops, as the teams combined for 57 personal fouls and 79 free throws.
In the second half, after Maryland grabbed a 73-60 lead with 10:16 left, the Mountaineers responded with a 25-12 run of their ++ own, punctuated by three-point shots from reserve forward Lawrence Pollard, who had 16 points off the bench, and guard Chris Leonard, whose fifth and final three-point goal pulled West Virginia to within 86-85 with 3:53 left.
But the Mountaineers made crucial mistakes down the stretch that took them out of the contest.
With 2:31 left, forward Ricky Robinson and Burns tangled at midcourt after Maryland's Mike Thibeault and Leonard had run into the backcourt for a loose ball.
Robinson pushed Burns and was called for a contact foul, which counts as both a technical and a personal foul. Walt Williams made one of the two free throws to give Maryland a 90-87 lead.
The Mountaineers turned the ball over three of the last six times they had possession, shutting the door on their comeback.
"I know on two specific occasions we throw the ball away on
plays where we were just a little bit out of sync," said West Virginia coach Gale Catlett. "We were rushing a little bit. We are a little better than we have been, but we are not quite good enough."