For 7-footer, Mardesich is down to earth

February 27, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- Mike Mardesich looked up at the media surrounding his locker.

"You guys are all over me right now. That's fine," he said. "You don't notice any screens, any assists. That's fine. As long as we're winning, whatever you want to write, that's fine with me."

Mardesich spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, without a trace of bitterness. He hit nearly every shot he took yesterday in Maryland's 81-73 victory over North Carolina. He could have taken some more in his post-game interview -- at the media, the fans, anyone and everyone who has derided him during his three largely disappointing seasons as Gary Williams' first 7-footer.

It was his day, just as it was his day two years ago when Maryland upset then-No. 1 Carolina at Cole Field House. If only the games in between were as fulfilling. Last season, Mardesich was held scoreless three times. This season, it has happened 12 times, including seven of the nine games before yesterday.

Mardesich is the kid who chose to redshirt against Williams' wishes as a freshman, the kid who has grown just slightly world-weary as a 22-year-old junior. Maryland fans ask, why can't he do this every game? Mardesich asks himself that, too. Spelling Lonny Baxter, shutting down Brendan Haywood, hitting five of six shots, isn't that the way he should always play?

Except for the shooting, that's the way he usually does, at least to hear Williams and Mardesich tell it. But when Mardesich received a standing ovation with 8: 18 left, the crowd wasn't saluting his defense or five rebounds. The crowd was saluting his 10 points, and maybe, just maybe, his perseverance, too.

In a post-game address early in the season, Williams felt com pelled to ask the crowd to back off Mardesich. But yesterday, the fans couldn't get enough of the backup center, who helped spark a 12-0 run to end the first half and went on an astonishing three- minute roll midway through the second.

Mardesich hit two left-handed jump hooks, fed Juan Dixon inside for a layup and then drained a 17-foot fadeaway with Dixon demanding the ball on the perimeter, screaming, "Mike! Mike! Mike!"

"I didn't really hear him," Mardesich said, smiling. "Haywood was back pretty far. I had passed up a couple before that. I was feeling it, so I put it up."

Or as Carolina's Jason Capel put it, "When guys like Mardesich started hitting jump shots, you know you're in trouble."

The fadeaway gave the Terps a 56-45 lead, and Williams briefly removed Mardesich moments later, prompting the standing ovation.

"There's no feeling like that," Mardesich said. "You're going to remember that for the rest of your life."

Williams reminded Mardesich to do just that as they met near center court for a post-game television interview. The coach also had offered Mardesich encouragement walking off the court at halftime, reaching back to put his arm around Mardesich and saying, "Way to go, Mike."

Their relationship got off to a rocky start when Mardesich opted to redshirt as a freshman, but it now appears that they've come to an understanding.

"Coach has really gotten to know me as a player," Mardesich said. "Not all players respond the same way to a coach. He's been learning gradually what I respond to well and what I don't respond to."

What makes Mardesich respond?

"Just being positive," he said. "I know when I don't play well. I don't need someone telling me. Not that he shouldn't -- it's his job. But I'm probably my own worst critic."

So, Williams no longer yells at him?

"He still yells. I'm not going to say that. He's still going to get on me," Mardesich said. "He knows when to back off, realize that I know what I'm doing out there. I've been around a little bit. He just knows how to coach me now."

Said Williams: "I've tried to be very positive with Mike this year. At the same time, you can't let guys feel sorry for themselves. You have to make sure they take responsibility."

Which brings us to yesterday.

Two years ago against Carolina, Mardesich scored a career-high 12 points, played a career-high 34 minutes and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. Williams didn't ask him to produce a similar game. All he wanted was for Mardesich to help defend against Haywood, the Tar Heels' 7-foot center.

That mission became even more urgent when Baxter picked up his third foul with 5: 56 left in the first half. Haywood had scored 24 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the teams' first meeting, a 75-63 Carolina victory. And Baxter would finish with his fewest points (seven) and minutes (18) since the Terps' Dec. 11 victory over Kentucky.

To Williams, Mardesich's offense was an afterthought, an unexpected outcome that could boost his player's confidence entering the ACC and NCAA tournaments. The coach seemed more pleased that Haywood scored only nine points on a day he collected a game-high 17 rebounds.

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