Terps' real deal Francis shows he's big deal, indeed

December 07, 1998|By John Eisenberg

WASHINGTON -- After scoring 24 points against Stanford yesterday in his first national network television appearance, Maryland's Steve Francis was asked whether he had shown the country his "A" game.

"I did a lot of stuff," he said. "But there's still a lot more stuff I can do."

Maryland coach Gary Williams agreed. "We're still working on some things for Steve," the Terps coach said after a 62-60 win at MCI Center.

If you're a Maryland fan and that doesn't accelerate your pulse, you must not have a pulse.

Francis, a junior from Takoma Park and Allegany Community College, has already dazzled in his first nine games at Maryland, exhibiting stunning quickness and leaping ability and an array of electrifying shots. Yesterday, he led the Terps in scoring, rebounding and steals against a Final Four team from last season.

And they're trying to tell us we haven't seen everything yet? What, is the guy going to take off and fly?

"He's just a great basketball player," Williams said. "You want him to play a team game, and he does that more than anyone expected, I think. But when he can, we want him to explode."

He did just that yesterday after Stanford built an 11-point lead in the first nine minutes. The Terps scored 28 of the game's next 35 points, with Francis delivering 12 that were hardly ordinary. He scored on a three-pointer from the key, a drive including two crossover dribbles and a drive on which he changed his shot in midair.

The pro-Maryland crowd roared at each move, then roared again at the instant replay shown on the scoreboard over the court. And Francis missed his most spectacular shot, after pump-faking his defender into the air, dribbling behind his back as he passed the defender and lifting a feathery finger roll at the rim.

Where in the name of George Gervin does he come up with this stuff?

"Just natural, I guess," he said, shrugging.

After Stanford rallied to take the lead late in the second half, Francis took off again. He scored on a driving layup, then stole the ball from Stanford guard Arthur Lee and drove downcourt for another layup. The Terps had the lead again.

"Francis was huge," Stanford coach Mike Montgomery said. "He's a great one-on-one player. He's tough, he has great legs, he shoots deep. He was their go-to guy. He made it happen."

What's more, he accomplished all that in just 14 shots, hardly a selfish total. Francis arrived at College Park with a reputation for being a playground hero who shot often and without a conscience -- probably because he had played for two junior college teams in two years. But that reputation was erroneous, it turns out. Way off. Francis plays under control and well within Williams' structure. His passing is sharp, his defense superb.

"I think people expected him to take 30 shots a game and do crazy things," Williams said, "and there's no doubt he can be that kind of player. But his game is fundamentally sound. His defense is really good. He works hard at that. And he's a great passer. He gives it up easily. He could take a lot more shots than he does, but we're getting a lot of our offense from his ability to draw the defense to him and then find the open man."

He was relatively quiet as Maryland won its first eight games, never taking more than 12 shots or scoring more than 19. Yesterday was his coming-out party. Dick Vitale was courtside. Stanford was a top opponent with a high-profile point guard, Lee, who had made the cover of Sports Illustrated's college basketball issue.

Lee finished the game with 14 points and eight assists, solid totals, but there's no doubt who was the best guard on the floor.

"You're the real deal," Vitale gushed to Francis on camera after the game, as fans cheered Francis' name.

Francis smiled and raised his arms in triumph, but he was reserved in the locker room. He wasn't basking in the spotlight.

"I'm just another player on the team," he said.

Did he hear the crowd roaring after those highlight-reel baskets?

"No, I was just looking at the coaches," he said. "There was no time to let down. Stanford was really good, really tough. This game was like a 12-round fight."

Wave after wave of reporters and TV crews approached him, asking questions for 30 minutes.

Q: Did you win the game by yourself?

A: "I'd never say that. No, our half-court offense won the game. And that's good because people said we didn't have a good half-court offense."

Q: Did you make a statement to the nation today?

A: "Everyone on this team made a statement today."

Q: How are you finding Division I ball?

A: "I'm having fun. A lot of fun."

When the last camera drifted away, Francis sat back and exhaled. Across the arena in the visitors' locker room, Stanford guard Kris Weems was asked about the player he had guarded for most of the game.

"Francis? The toughest I've played against," Weems said.

He's already the real deal, as Dickie V said, and there's more to come, apparently, things we still haven't seen. Like his "A" game, for instance. If we really haven't seen it, what a sight it must be.

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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