Giving Terps a shot in arm Sarunas Jasikevicius: Maryland's junior guard has worked hard to show he's not just a jump shooter -- and he's made believers of his coaches and teammates.

February 08, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CLEMSON, S.C. — "TC CLEMSON, S.C. -- From the time he came to Maryland three years ago, Sarunas Jasikevicius has been stereotyped as a standstill jump shooter. Though his game has expanded along with his playing time, it is his sweet, fluid stroke that separates Jasikevicius from nearly every one of his teammates.

Jasikevicius doesn't agree with being classified this way, but the 6-foot-4 guard from Lithuania certainly understands it. Nor does Jasikevicius agree with the assessment that he is in a shooting slump, but he understands that, too. "Every good shooter is going to have periods when they struggle," Jasikevicius said Thursday.

Jasikevicius, the best outside shooter for the seventh-ranked Terrapins, is struggling. Since hitting three of his four three-point attempts in a 74-70 win over Duke on Jan. 26, Jasikevicius has missed 11 straight and Maryland has made just five of its last 33. Not coincidentally, the Terrapins have struggled as well.

The numbers concern coach Gary Williams, just not to the point where he plans to make any changes in his team's rotation or his philosophy. Jasikevicius will start in today's noon Atlantic Coast Conference game for Maryland (18-4, 7-3) against No. 10 Clemson (18-4, 6-3) at Littlejohn Coliseum, just as he has all season.

And Williams is hopeful that his team's offense, which needed to rely almost exclusively on its inside game in Wednesday night's 66-55 win over North Carolina State, will again be as balanced as it was a few weeks ago, and will need to be for this magical season to continue deep into March. He is hopeful, and seemingly confident, that Jasikevicius will again find the range that keeps defenses from sagging onto Keith Booth and Obinna Ekezie inside.

"Shooters get that feeling, as soon as they release it, the fans are cheering because they think it's going in," said Williams. "When great shooters are missing, they'll tell you it's because somebody opened the door to the gym and a breeze came in. To be a great shooter, you have to have that confidence. He [Jasikevicius] hasn't hit that level yet, but that's next."

Said Jasikevicius: "Every time I release it, it feels like it's good. But if it's not, I can't let it hurt the rest of my game. Even if my shot isn't falling, I can do other things to help this team, like passing and playing good defense. I get more satisfaction out of the other parts of my game than I do my shooting, because people don't think I can do those things."

It was the perception of Jasikevicius as a one-dimensional player and, more importantly, a defensive liability that kept him on the bench for most of his first two seasons at Maryland. While much of the time would have gone to Johnny Rhodes regardless of what Jasikevicius was doing, Williams was still uncomfortable using him for more than a short burst.

Occasionally, Jasikevicius opened some eyes. As a freshman, he had a crucial three to help beat Clemson here for the first time under Williams and will be remembered for his hustle and arm-waving during an upset of then No. 1-ranked North Carolina. As a sophomore, he scored 15, five in overtime, in a win over N.C. State.

"There were always a couple of guys ahead of Sarunas," Williams said earlier this season. "This year he had the chance to compete for playing time and he made the most of it."

The opportunity came in preseason workouts, during which Jasikevicius was the most consistent of Maryland's perimeter players. He scored in double figures in the team's first four games before going into a seven-game slump in which Jasikevicius shot 19-for-51 from the field, including 5-for-20 on threes.

"When that happened, my confidence was a little shaken," said Jasikevicius, who averaged less than eight minutes a game his first two seasons. "But this time it's not because I was able to get myself out of it the first time."

After talking with Williams and assistant coach Billy Hahn, who encouraged him not to be tentative deciding when to shoot, Jasikevicius emerged from that slump by hitting seven of 11 shots (four of seven threes) for a career-high 24 points in a win over Virginia on Jan. 4.

"I always knew I could play in the ACC, but that game showed me I could be a good player in the ACC," said Jasikevicius, who followed it by scoring in double figures in six of the next seven games. "The Virginia game was huge for me."

What has quieted his doubters, and even surprised Williams, are the other facets of Jasikevicius' game. He is a creative passer who is second in assists on the team behind sophomore point guard Terrell Stokes, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (74-40) is the best of any player.

His defense has come a long way, from the point where Jasikevicius said, "We would match up the other team's best four guys and whoever was left I would guard," to where he now draws some pretty tough assignments. He has put the clamps on Virginia's Curtis Staples and Florida State's James Collins.

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