Terps' Elliott raises play, excitement level

January 25, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- There were times earlier this season when some wondered what Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams saw in Rodney Elliott and what the excitement was all about when the 6-foot-8 forward signed with the Terrapins out of Dunbar last spring.

Williams hadn't lost hope in Elliott's future, but was close to believing that his freshman year at Maryland was going to be a lost cause in terms of his being a factor once the Terps began their Atlantic Coast Conference season.

"I thought, that's OK, he's only a freshman," Williams said Monday. "It's hard sometimes for a freshman to get a grasp of what you're trying to do with the different offenses and defenses. But something happened when he got back after Christmas break. He had been very tentative before that. [Then] I thought he started to play like the Rodney Elliott I knew at Dunbar."

Said Elliott: "I don't know what may have sparked it, but once I got on the floor, things started to come a little easier."

The spark is still there, and bright enough for Elliott to have worked his way into Maryland's regular rotation. The confidence Elliott has gained the past few weeks is matched by the comfort level Williams now has in using him.

Elliott likely will see more playing time tonight, when eighth-ranked Maryland (14-3, 4-1 in the ACC) tries to do something it hasn't done since the 1987-88 season: beat Clemson (10-4, 1-4) at Littlejohn Coliseum.

"I think I've been improving in practice," said Elliott, who turned in an impressive eight-minute stint during an 84-67 victory Sunday at North Carolina State. "I've been working harder in practice. I know my job when I get in."

During the first two months of the season, Elliott mainly tried to stay out of the way. Recruited for his rebounding and defense, he saw his minutes dwindle to mop-up duty by the time the ACC season started.

"Coming from Dunbar, I played mostly the whole game as a senior," said Elliott, a late bloomer who didn't make the Poets' varsity until his junior year but then averaged 12 points, 13 rebounds and more than 5 1/2 assists last season. "The toughest part obviously is not playing.

"You want to contribute. I was contributing in practice and I was contributing on the sideline as a cheerleader. But I've learned to have a lot of patience. And now I feel comfortable in any situation."

Whether it means trying to defend Rasheed Wallace, North Carolina's 6-10, 225-pound sophomore center, in the low post or leaning all of his wiry 207 pounds on Bryant Feggins, N.C. State's 240-pound senior forward, Elliott has seemingly held his own.

In fact, Elliott did more than that Sunday at Reynolds Coliseum. Coming in after Maryland All-American Joe Smith picked up his second foul in the final minute of the first half, Elliott helped push the Terps' lead to 11 points by halftime.

First he skied for a defensive rebound, was fouled and made both free throws, despite being a 50 percent foul shooter coming in. Then, after replacing Smith for more than five minutes in the second half, he got an offensive rebound that led to a jumper by Johnny Rhodes and later made two neat inside feeds to Mario Lucas, who got fouled on one and scored a layup on the other.

"In practice, me and Mario play together on the white [second] team," said Elliott, who in his first 23 minutes of ACC play has seven points, seven rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. "We have a little cohesiveness going. That's a situation where you have to hit him if he's open."

Said Lucas: "We look for each other."

Lucas, a junior, also looks out for Elliott, just as former Maryland player Evers Burns did for Lucas when he was a freshman. Though that Maryland team had some internal problems on the court between its seniors and freshmen, Lucas said Burns was usually there if he needed him.

"He's been frustrated a couple of times," Lucas said of Elliott. "I told him that his time will come. Someone might get hurt or get into foul trouble and he has to be ready. I think he's shown Coach that he can help us this year."

While Elliott is still limited offensively, his ability to get on the boards can help a team whose only consistent rebounder has been Smith. Williams believes that Elliott's Baltimore roots have helped him adjust to his new role more easily than some freshmen might.

"Playing with so many great players at an early age, you learn to do things like rebound and play defense," said Williams.

The coach smiled.

"With some of those guys, you'd better not shoot."

Said Elliott: "Playing on the playgrounds with great players like Keith Booth, Donta Bright and Sam Cassell, you only get better."

The same can be true for Elliott at Maryland, reunited with Booth and playing with the likes of Smith and Rhodes. The Terps don't need him to do big things now, just a few little things when the opportunity comes.

And it will come, as long as the spark is there.

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