RALEIGH, N.C. -- Kevin McLinton will celebrate an anniversary of sorts today: It was here last season that he reclaimed the job as the University of Maryland's No. 1 point guard. He also hopes to be celebrating something more significant: a rare victory for the Terps at North Carolina State's Reynolds Coliseum.
Having played only six games before suffering a season-ending stress fracture as a freshman, having started 17 games as a sophomore while former All-American Walt Williams recovered from a broken leg, McLinton took over again for good as a junior against the Wolfpack, scoring 19 points in a 94-88 loss.
It was the third defeat in Maryland's 0-6 start in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season. It was also the school's sixth straight loss at N.C. State. But, ultimately, it was a move that turned around the season for the struggling Terps.
"That might have given Kevin a little confidence," Maryland coach Gary Williams said yesterday. "We thought we'd be a better team with Kevin at the point and Walt at the off-guard, and we were. Making that change was important to Kevin."
While they will be trying to break a similar ACC losing streak today against N.C. State (4-8, 0-4), the Terps are not struggling as they were last season. Or even last week. After losing its first four games in the league, Maryland (9-5, 0-4) was energized by an 89-78 upset of No. 12 Oklahoma on Tuesday night at the Baltimore Arena.
And McLinton is in the midst of his best offensive stretch in what has become a solid college career. Except for a poor performance last Saturday against Wake Forest -- a game in which he missed 10 of 16 shots and was burned by Randolph Childress for 30 points -- McLinton has put up numbers that few would have imagined.
"I feel really comfortable about what I'm doing," said McLinton. "Being a senior, being a co-captain, you have to have a take-charge attitude. I'd like to have four wins in the conference right now, but I couldn't be happier with my own production."
After averaging a little more than 11 points through Maryland's firstnine games -- about the same as he did last season -- McLinton has averaged a little more than 20 points in the past six. He had 21 against North Carolina and a career-high 28 against Florida State, but the Terps lost to the Tar Heels by 28 and to the Seminoles by 20.
His performance against the Sooners wasn't in vain for a couple of reasons: McLinton scored 20 points, had a season-high seven rebounds and added four assists. Long considered a blue-collar role player, he even piqued the curiosity of several pro scouts in attendance.
"He's always impressed me as a great athlete," said New York Knicks scout Dick McGuire, a former point guard. "But he's also become a very good basketball player."
McLinton's athleticism always has overshadowed his basketball skills. His 6-foot-3, 220-pound physique is more impressive than his jump shot, but McLinton always has played his best against the top teams in the country.
As a sophomore, he scored 21 points against the Tar Heels. As a junior, he nearly carried the Terps to a road upset of then-No. 1 Duke with 25 points and 11 assists. McLinton also had 17 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in another close loss to the Blue Devils a few weeks later in the ACC tournament.
"I think it comes from the fact that I'm a competitor," said McLinton, who is second on the team in scoring (15.9) behind fellow senior co-captain Evers Burns and second in the ACC in assists (6.7) behind Duke's Bobby Hurley. "It brings out the best in me. I want to prove that we can be just as good as they are."
Said Williams: "I'm not concerned with Kevin in a big game. He's not going to back off from anybody. He might not always shoot it well, but he'll find a way to contribute."
Though the injury-plagued, academically depleted Wolfpack is far from a top 25 team these days, today's 1:30 p.m. game looms quite large for Maryland. The victory over Oklahoma renewed hopes of a possible bid to the NCAA tournament in March, but the Terps still must make a respectable showing in the league to merit such attention.
In fact, this game and Tuesday's game at Clemson could either put the Terps in the hunt or take them out of the running by the time they play Duke next Saturday at Cole Field House. A postseason invitation is important to McLinton, considering he was injured the last time Maryland was eligible. But just as he isn't lamenting the two years the Terps spent on NCAA probation, McLinton isn't looking too far into the future. In fact, he isn't looking past today.
"It's extra important," he said. "A lot of people might be thinking that the Oklahoma game was a fluke. This is a great opportunity for us. We have to get a team like State when they're down because they're not going to be down for long. It's definitely a must-win situation. We feel we have to start making some waves in the conference if we want to get to the NCAA tournament."