Saunders enhances his game

January 19, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

And to think Skip Saunders was recruited to be a part-time player.

UMBC coach Earl Hawkins remembers the scouting report on Saunders as a Gar-Field (Va.) High School senior: small, slow, nice outside shot. Not much on defense, but a nice outside shot. No inside game, but what an outside shot.

"We recruited him [Saunders] as a backup, a role player who could come off the bench and shoot the basketball," Hawkins says.

Four years, 98 games and 1,096 points later, Saunders has proved Hawkins correct in one area: He can shoot the basketball. Take Monday night, when Saunders scored a team-high 18 points on 6-for-9 shooting, including a pair of three-pointers, to lead the Retrievers to an 86-81 victory over Coastal Carolina.

Just another day at the office for Saunders, a 6-foot guard who has fooled Hawkins and many others with his quickness and aptitude for the game. Sure, Saunders still takes shots he has no business selecting. But, while becoming the eighth-highest scorer in UMBC history, Saunders has been a three-year fixture in the starting lineup because he has become a well-rounded player.

"Each year, Skip has gone home, worked over the summer and come back a better shooter and a better player," says Hawkins, who ranks Saunders near Larry Simmons, the Retrievers' all-time leading scorer (1,805 points). "Skip is actually a better pure shooter [than Simmons]. Skip has been somewhat of a surprise."

"My game has come a long way, offensively and defensively," says Saunders, who goes into tonight's game at Towson State averaging 12.7 points on 39.7 percent shooting, although he is hitting 40.7 percent of his three-pointers.

Saunders' problems have not been of his own doing. With a roster that was juggled by the academic suspension of center Sonique Nixon and an ankle injury that kept point guard Spencer Ferguson out of action for three weeks, the Retrievers (3-9, 2-2 in Big South) struggled through offensive droughts that contributed heavily to a nine-game losing streak. UMBC has rebounded to win its past two games.

Saunders has also been a victim of his success.

Unlike during his sophomore year, when he emerged as an offensive force and averaged 12.0 points, or his junior year, when he led the Retrievers with a 15.6-point average with an excellent supporting cast, Saunders has been a marked man this year. Defenses are denying him the ball with more vigilance. He has had to work harder for his points. And he also has forced more shots than he would care to remember.

Saunders shrugs and says he'll continue to adjust. After all, Saunders has shown he can adjust to the competition.

"I found out there's a regression when you get to college," Saunders says. "You're going up against bigger, quicker people, and you have to learn how to do things all over again."

Or in Saunders' case, you have to try new things, like playing defense or driving to the basket.

At Gar-Field, the points and the honors came easily. As a senior, Saunders was named MVP of the Commonwealth District and made the Northwest Region's first team. When he turned down Radford -- a Big South rival that was the only other school to show serious interest -- to come to UMBC, Saunders found out how much work he needed to do.

"I could've cared less about playing defense. I hate the defensive drills to this day. But I had to accept that it's 50 percent of the game," Saunders says. "And for the first couple of years, I didn't even want to try to take the ball to the basket."

Watch Saunders now and you see a co-captain who enjoys the game's intricacies. If a defender leaves him alone on the wing, he won't hesitate to shoot the jumper. If a defender comes out to take away that shot, Saunders will use his quick first step to drive to the basket or create a shot for a teammate. On defense, he is no longer the slow-footed, out-of-position player who lost his opponent so easily as a younger player.

It has been a good ride for the Saunders, 21, who plans to graduate this year with a degree in sports management. He would like to help UMBC finish with its first winning season in five years.

"I've been inconsistent this year, and the last thing I want in my last year is inconsistency," he says. "I felt a lot of frustration during the losing streak because we had higher expectations for this year. I'm supposed to provide leadership. My game is not where it needs to be. But I always need to improve."

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