Blake Terps' driving force

Freshman hurtles through ACC boldly, yet anonymously

March 04, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Whether it's an open lane or an open-ended question about his ability, Maryland's Steve Blake knows just one way to respond: little fear and lots of conviction.

The Terrapins freshman point guard carries big assist numbers along with a small, 175-pound frame, a combination that's neither a fast track to "SportsCenter" nor a way to gain attention around the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Blake leads all conference freshmen in assists (6.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.76: 1) but has been shut out for Rookie of the Week honors, watching eight other first-year players get the award. He was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in December regarding impact freshmen but was dropped from the article after his endurance bottomed out during a two-game slump.

"It doesn't upset me. If people want to give everyone else all the pub, they can," said Blake, who was considered by most as one of the nation's top six recruits at point guard last year. "But whoever gets it done on the court is what matters.

"I'm not surprised at all [at his recent production]. I expect to be playing better than I am now. All those people that doubted me, look now and see how I am playing."

Maryland (22-7, 11-4) closes out its regular season tonight at Virginia (18-10, 8-7), which is resting its NCAA tournament hopes on this game. The Terrapins, meanwhile, have won a single-season, school-record nine straight ACC games, clinching second place in the conference, and it's not a secret who pointed the team in the right direction.

Blake has averaged 7.3 points and 6.3 assists during the stretch while breaking Maryland's 27-year-old record for assists by a freshman. He is 34 shy of Keith Gatlin's single-season school mark of 221.

Yet Blake is more appreciated because of numbers he doesn't produce. The Miami Lakes, Fla., native has turned the ball over only 17 times during the ACC winning streak, averaging one every 16.8 minutes. That fact isn't inflated by conservative play either, as Blake continues to break down defenses by driving into traffic and finding open teammates near the basket with long bounce passes.

He has outplayed North Carolina's Ed Cota, the NCAA's fourth all-time assist leader. He has won both matchups with Duke's Jason Williams, one of the nation's premier freshmen. And he has shut down Clemson's Will Solomon, Wake Forest's Robert O'Kelley and Florida State's Delvon Arrington.

Blake also prodded Virginia's Donald Hand into 1-for-9 shooting for five points. He shut off Hand's right side, forcing the Cavaliers' leading scorer to use his weaker left-handed dribble.

It's a tidbit that Blake picked up from watching a tape he borrowed from coach Gary Williams.

"You have to do anything to get the advantage," Blake said. "Lots of guys in the ACC are scoring point guards. I try to figure out what they do mostly and what kinds of screens they're coming off."

Maybe these guards should be dissecting Blake instead, especially since this defensive stopper has cracked his shooting shell recently. Scoring in double figures in three consecutive games, he has hit 20 of his past 29 shots (69.0 percent). By becoming more selfish in looking for his own shot, Blake has really worked more into Maryland's team concept and made opponents think again about sagging inside.

Blake has rarely shied away from uncontested three-pointers during the past month, converting nine of 14 (64.3 percent) during a five-game span. He also has shown his athleticism finishing off shots in the lane, a place where Blake usually would penetrate and think pass first.

After games against the Terps, coaches Dave Odom of Wake Forest and Steve Robinson of Florida State said Blake surprised them. Even Williams acknowledged having some reservations before the season.

"You worry about that in the off-season that you got a freshman point guard," Williams said. "You think he's good, but you're not sure how good he is. You hear about Jason Williams and how he's the best point guard ever coming out of high school. And you hear that from Maryland people. You wonder. You have doubts yourself that you keep to yourself."

So now where does Blake rank all the freshman point guards who have played under Williams?

"He's certainly one of the best," Williams said.

Blake backed that up Wednesday against Florida State, hitting three three-pointers in just over a two-minute span after the Seminoles had crept within 51-48 midway through the second half.

On his final three-pointer, Williams signaled "thumbs up," meaning Blake receives a high screen as well as the green light to shoot. Moving around Lonny Baxter's pick, Blake ended up a couple of feet behind the arc but followed through without flinching.

"The shot clock was going down a little bit," Blake explained.

A reporter then interrupted, informing Blake that the clock still had 20 seconds remaining.

"Yeah, well, that's getting down there," Blake said, smiling. "My shot's been feeling well, so I just pulled up and shot it."

No hesitation, no fear.

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