Centennial's James plays David to foes' Goliaths

December 23, 1992|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,Staff Writer

Game after game, 5-foot-8, 125-pound Centennial point guard Mark James proves that size doesn't make that much difference when your heart is as big as his.

James has proven himself fearless against some big competitors this season, including Westminster and Thomas Johnson.

Last Friday against Westminster -- a team with a starting front line of 6-7, 6-4 and 6-3 -- James made four clutch free throws in the final 53 seconds to secure a five-point win -- Centennial's fourth victory in five games. He scored his season high of eight points.

By far his most impressive performance, however, came Dec. 11 against Thomas Johnson, a team that featured 6-8, 280-pound center Phil Williams, an early signee for a Penn State basketball scholarship. The rest of the Patriots front line was 6-5 and 6-3 and solidly built.

The Patriots pounded James in an effort to intimidate him. But he didn't appear to be fazed. He passed and dribbled to near perfection. He made just one turnover in the up-tempo contest in which he constantly forced the action. And he even drove right at Williams in the fourth period, picking up a foul and making two free throws that put his team ahead 53-47 with 5:46 left to play.

Thomas Johnson later rallied to take a three-point victory despite James' six assists and three steals.

"He makes the most of his talent," Centennial coach Jim Hill said. "He sees the whole floor, he's smart, very coachable and deceptively quick. He gets his shots off much faster than people think he will."

After finishing last season 14-9 -- the Eagles best record ever -- Hill was a bit concerned about the point guard position for this season.

The starting point guard had graduated and James had played sparingly in 11 games.

"I was concerned a bit about his size, but he's respected by his peers because they assured me he would be able to do the job," Hill said.

James left no doubt about that when he won the Most Valuable Player award at the summer camp Centennial's varsity attended, the Syracuse Big Orange Basketball Camp in New York. Centennial won the camp's championship by posting a 12-0 record.

"They must have picked me for leadership because I only scored about 10 points per game," James said.

He thinks passing is his strength. That ability is evident at every Centennial game. He is adept at spotting and hitting back-door openings.

"We have a lot of guys who can score, so I worry about getting the ball to them and playing defense," James said.

He can score if needed, especially from three-point range.

The senior has come a long way since his freshman year, when he was cut from the junior varsity team.

"I was only 5-foot-0 then," he said.

He refused to get discouraged. He ran indoor track that season and made the basketball team his sophomore year.

His basketball success, although slow in coming at Centennial, is not a surprise. He has played organized basketball since he was 5 years old.

"My father used to be the HCYP [Howard County Youth Program] basketball commissioner," he said.

Early on, he got used to playing against bigger opponents and learned to adapt.

When teams try to trap him, he's adept at spotting the trap and getting rid of the ball before he gets into trouble.

"I learned to always keep my head up to pick up the traps," he said.

He likes a fast-paced style partly because he's in such good shape that he doesn't tire easily.

James runs cross country in the fall and track in the spring. He finished third in the county, fourth in the region and 13th in the state in cross country last fall. He started running at age five with the Howard County Junior Striders.

The 17-year-old honor-roll student carries a 3.2 grade point average and already has received one running scholarship from UMBC. He also is interested in the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Mary Washington College.

"He's proved that he can handle whatever comes his way," Hill said. "He excels. He doesn't settle for second best."

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