These Maryland seniors anything but sophomoric

March 14, 1998|By John Eisenberg

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- It is among the least heralded of Gary Williams' recruiting classes at Maryland, which seems kind of silly now.

The seniors of '98 are disproving those early, modest assessments as their careers near an end.

They're leading the Terps on a late-season drive that has reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line today against Illinois at the Arco Arena.

"Our seniors are playing like seniors should," Williams said after Rodney Elliott and Sarunas Jasikevicius combined for 37 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and 4-for-6 three-point shooting in the Terps' first-round victory over Utah State, and Matt Kovarik came off the bench for 22 minutes of strong defense.

It's an old-fashioned story line that almost passes for quaint in today's college game.

A senior used to be the ultimate asset, particularly in the NCAA tournament. But now, with so many college stars leaving early for the pros, the typical senior is regarded as, well, a modest talent who wasn't good enough to cash in.

That depressing reality can leave seniors in a funk, as the Terps learned with their prized senior class of '96, which included Exree Hipp, Duane Simpkins and others. They were jealous of Joe Smith until he left for the NBA, and their senior season was unremarkable, to say the least.

Remember Santa Clara?

Kovarik, who arrived on campus in '94 (and sat out a year due to injury), and Elliott and Jasikevicius, who arrived a year later, are completely different.

"They're not spoiled," Williams said. "They weren't big recruits. They weren't promised anything coming out of high school. They've had to work for everything they got. Leadership like that sets a great example. Sometimes seniors can get jealous of younger guys getting a lot of attention. This class is different. It's all very positive."

Instead of succumbing to senior-itis, they have improved their games, emerged as vocal leaders and ended up setting a much higher standard than the '96 class.

"You're always remembered by what you accomplish as a senior," Jasikevicius said yesterday. "The [senior] classes before got knocked out in the first round. I'd like to leave a mark."

Not that it's right to single out the seniors as being responsible for the Terps' late-season drive, which has included five wins in the past six games. Sharp passing, balanced scoring and solid play from Obinna Ekezie and Laron Profit also have contributed.

But Elliott and Jasikevicius, in particular, are playing the biggest when it matters most.

In their past four games, they have averaged a combined 38.5 points, which is 11 over their combined average for the season. Elliott has had three double doubles (points and rebounds). Jasikevicius has hit 50 percent of his three-point shots and 52 percent from the field overall, way above his season totals. He is driving hard to the basket and passing with a sharp eye.

When the Terps found themselves trailing Utah State late in the first half, raising unpleasant memories of prior first-round losses, it was Jasikevicius who gathered his teammates on the sidelines and said, "We can't let this happen again!"

And it was Jasikevicius who then went out and hit three straight three-pointers to push the Terps back ahead and on their way to victory.

"I'm very aware of this being my last year and my last chance," he said yesterday.

Pittsburgh was the only other major school that wanted him coming out of high school in Solanco, Pa., where he had moved as a senior from Lithuania.

He didn't start at Maryland until he was a junior and was long regarded as little more than a jump shooter, but not anymore. One NBA scout said recently that the pros were gaining interest in Jasikevicius, maybe as a second-round pick, because of his strong body, shooting range and his ability to play both backcourt positions.

To say that he has come a long way is a vast understatement.

Elliott's recruitment was similar; he was a star at Dunbar High School, but few of the major colleges were fighting the Terps for him. Some friends even told him to go to a smaller school, where he would play more.

Four years later, the pros are watching him, too, as a power forward with a guard's shooting range.

They roomed together as freshmen, the kid from East Baltimore and the Lithuanian still learning English. A bond was formed that exists to this day.

"There were some bad times," Jasikevicius said of their long stints together on the bench. "But we got through them, continued to work and good things have resulted. Knowing where we started, it means a lot to both of us to have a good season."

As long as Elliott and Jasikevicius have been around, Kovarik, 23, has been at College Park forever, or so it seems. Another low-level recruit, from Greensboro, N.C., he was part of the same freshman class as Joe Smith and Keith Booth. His career has spanned 127 games.

"Five years at Maryland, five trips to the NCAA tournament," Kovarik said yesterday. "It's been a pretty good run. This one means a little more."

Why? He's a senior, the only backcourt reserve and a leader in the locker room.

"All three of the seniors have had a big impact," Ekezie said. "They're very positive. You need that. A good team has vocal, veteran players to lead."

It's almost a lost art now, the art of being an upbeat, stalwart senior leader.

The Terps have three, a throwback class of seniors.

Dismissed in the beginning as low-impact recruits, they're anything but that now.

Pub Date: 3/14/98

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