COLLEGE PARK -- Kevin McLinton has spent most of his three years at the University of Maryland trying to prove he belongs in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Each time he seems to silence the skeptics, something goes awry.
Most recently, it was McLinton's jump shot. During close defeats to Florida State and Wake Forest, the junior point guard was more Maryland's off guard, missing 20 of 24 shots. Several came in crucial situations for the Terrapins.
"When you go through a streak like I had, you start thinking about a lot of things," McLinton said yesterday. "You start thinking about your mechanics, about if you're taking the right shots. Of course, your confidence goes down."
It's not merely a coincidence that McLinton's confidence returned along with his jumper Saturday, when he hit eight of 13 shots from the field and scored a career-high 24 points in an 84-71 win over Clemson.
The victory helped break an eight-game losing streak for Maryland (8-9, 1-6), which plays Virginia (8-8, 2-4) tonight (7:30) at University Hall in Charlottesville. It's a place that brings back some pleasant memories for McLinton and the Terps.
"That Virginia game was very important," said McLinton, who hit seven of nine shots from the field, scored 18 and made a big steal in a 78-74 overtime win over the Cavaliers in Maryland's final game last season. "We hadn't won any [ACC] games on the road, and we took it to them."
Said Virginia coach Jeff Jones, whose team will be trying to break a three-game ACC losing streak: "One of the most underrated players in the conference is Kevin McLinton. He's really improved. He got the opportunity last year when Walt Williams was injured. I think he's stepped it up this year."
Though he has struggled with his shooting throughout the season -- he is at 42.6 percent -- McLinton's offensive production has improved to a respectable 12.1 points a game. More impressive are his 5.3 rebounds, second to Duke's Grant Hill among ACC guards.
During McLinton's recent shooting drought, Maryland coach Gary Williams tried to convince his point guard that he'd be better off taking the ball to the basket and getting fouled, since McLinton is the team's best free-throw shooter (64 of 79 for 81 percent).
"When Kevin goes to the basket, he can be a great guard," said Williams. "But when he stands outside, he's just another player. I told him that if he goes to the basket and gets hit a couple of times, he'll get some confidence from the foul line and the jump shots will come. That's what happened Saturday."
"I had a lot to prove last year, and I did," said McLinton. "A lot of people said when I came here that I couldn't play in the ACC, and I could understand it at the time. It took some time to adjust. I missed my freshman year with an injury, so this is really my second year. I think I've proved that I can play on this level."