Lithuanian is all-world in hero's role

January 25, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- They were down by six points late in the second half, and their best player, Laron Profit, had just fouled out.

The Maryland Terrapins desperately needed someone to make some big plays down the stretch against Clemson yesterday at Cole Field House.

Fortunately for them, they found someone to make all the big plays.

Sarunas Jasikevicius, the senior guard from Lithuania, didn't leave room for anyone else to take much of the credit for the Terps' 74-69 victory.

With four baskets, two steals, one rebound and 12 points in the final 5: 05, he put the Terps on his back and carried them to a victory that had appeared lost.

"I'm a senior, I should step up," he said, all but shrugging at his second straight game-winning performance.

With the score tied at Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, he drew a foul 30 feet from the basket with 1.1 seconds left, and then, looking about as nervous as he might under sedation, made three straight free throws to win the game.

He outdid that yesterday, chewing up most of Clemson's late lead with a driving layup and a three-pointer, giving the Terps the lead with a layup off a steal, hitting another three-pointer to provide some cushion, then hitting two free throws with 31 seconds left.

Obinna Ekezie also had six points in the final minutes, and Rodney Elliott made two free throws with 21 seconds left, but the rally had Jasikevicius' name all over it.

Without him, the Terps might well have gone 0-2 during the week instead of 2-0.

"He does some funny things out there now and then, but he's there when we need him," Maryland coach Gary Williams said.

Those "funny things" have included harebrained passes and low-percentage shots at critical moments -- the kinds of mistakes that, well, drive a coach nuts?

"Absolutely," Williams said. "But the great thing about Sarunas is he's fearless. And he exudes that confidence that all great players have. I can say to him, 'Sarunas, that was terrible.' And he'll come back and play hard."

It's a stretch to say he is developing into the Terps' go-to guy -- Profit and Ekezie are still more dependable -- but he is nothing if not willing and able.

"I love those [tense] situations," he said. "If you're any kind of player, you want to be in the position where the team is depending on you."

Jasikevicius has not often been in that position at College Park.

After leaving Kaunas, Lithuania, to finish high school in central Pennsylvania, he came to Maryland with a reputation as a terrific shooter, then played little for two years. Poor defense and erratic passing reduced him to a role as a designated three-point shooter.

"I thought about transferring after my sophomore year," he said yesterday. "My parents came over and we talked about it with Coach [Williams]."

He also could have returned to Lithuania, turned pro and made some nice money.

"But I didn't want to go back there," he said. "And then I made the decision to stay [at Maryland] because it looked like a chance to play might open up."

He was right; his defense and passing improved, he earned a place in the starting lineup and he scored in double figures in 17 games last season.

His all-around improvement is obvious this year; he is first on the team in assists, second in steals and fourth in scoring, and his defense has improved to the point that he was guarding Clemson's Terrell McIntyre in the final minutes yesterday.

"He's kind of a throwback in the way that he has bided his time, worked on his game and gradually developed to the point that he's a key player," Williams said. "Sarunas is good. He can do a lot of things."

He did them all in the final minutes yesterday, after Clemson had blown away the Terps with a 23-7 run to suck the life out of a loud crowd at Cole. Jasikevicius and point guard Terrell Stokes had an argument on the court at one point, and there was silence when Profit drew his fifth foul with 5: 10 to go and Clemson ahead by six.

The argument with Stokes?

"Just family," Williams said.

"No big deal, just the heat of the moment," Jasikevicius said. "Immediately forgotten."

After his driving layup and a Clemson turnover, he found himself on the wing behind the three-point arc. The shot swished and Cole was rocking again.

"That was a gutty shot because he wasn't that open," Williams said.

Jasikevicius and Stokes then forced two turnovers with a wicked half-court trap, and the Terps' lead grew to four points.

Clemson still had a chance when Tony Christie stepped to the free-throw line with 33 seconds left and Maryland up two. But Christie missed two free throws and guess who came up with the loose ball after a scramble?

Someone had to make the plays, and someone made almost all of them.

"It's not like I told myself to take over when Laron fouled out," Jasikevicius said, "but I knew if I had a chance, I was going to do something."

When he was finished, the Terps had their fifth win in six games, a 12-6 record and a lock on an NCAA tournament bid. "I'm having fun," Jasikevicius said. "It's great to be in position to make a difference, and come through. You have to be happy with that."

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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