Call Terps' Nicholas Mr. Versatile

6-foot-3 junior super sub helps out at 3 positions, playing all of them well

College Basketball

February 03, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Drew Nicholas never expected to become a handyman in a basketball uniform.

For the most versatile player in a Maryland Terrapins uniform, any job that keeps him on the floor is worth mastering. Playing time is that precious to Nicholas.

The junior guard from New York's Long Island is making the most of his opportunities, and the No. 3 Terps are a more dangerous team because of it.

On any given night, Nicholas, a long-armed 6 feet 3, comes off the bench to run the offense while giving point guard Steve Blake a rest. Or he spends much of his time at small forward, concentrating on playing defense and keeping a taller, aggressive swingman like Wake Forest's Josh Howard off the offensive boards. Or he fills in for shooting guard Juan Dixon and does what he likes best by firing away at the basket.

Typically, Nicholas spreads out his 20.4-minute contribution average by doing a little of everything and doing it well.

"Every night it's different, a different role each night," said Nicholas, who is averaging 6.9 points, 2.5 assists, 2.6 rebounds and only 1.2 turnovers. He's also shooting 50.5 percent from the field, including 39.1 percent from three-point range.

"It's been a process, a long process since I came in as a freshman. Coming from being labeled as a shooter to a point guard in my sophomore year. Now I'm playing three positions. Hopefully, it's helping me become a complete player. Hopefully, I won't have to play four positions next year."

Kidding aside, Nicholas has never looked more valuable to Maryland. All he did in Thursday's dramatic, come-from-behind 91-87 victory at Virginia was produce the two biggest shots heard in Charlottesville this season.

The Terps (17-3, 7-1) begin their second round of Atlantic Coast Conference play today against visiting North Carolina State in a first-place tie with Duke, thanks to a score of big moments from many sources in the season's most thrilling night.

There was senior forward Byron Mouton, playing a superb first half and scoring a season-high 21 points. There was Dixon getting the last word, after being thoroughly outplayed by Roger Mason Jr. by making the shot that put Maryland ahead to stay with 31.8 seconds left. There was backup forward Tahj Holden scoring all 11 of his points in the second half. The Terps also missed only one free throw in 26 attempts.

But the comeback from nine points down with 3:22 left was stamped with Nicholas' fingerprints. His 25-footer from the right wing cut Virginia's lead to 85-81 with 2:40 left, sending a pang of doubt into the Cavaliers and their boisterous fans. His 27-foot shot from the top of the key with 1:20 to go cut the lead to 87-86 and sent the Terps on a game-ending 8-0 run.

"It looked far," Nicholas said of his second shot, which completed the most significant six-point scoring line of the contest. "When I caught the ball, I just shot it. Even before the ball left my hand, I knew it was going in."

On top of that, Nicholas did what the 6-3 Dixon could not do all night - stop the 6-5 Mason, who lit up the senior All-America candidate for most of his 29 points, including a 5-for-11 show from three-point range. Nicholas blocked Mason's game-tying three-point attempt in the closing seconds and remained on the floor in crunch time while Blake rode the bench.

"We had to go with who was hot, and Drew was playing well," Williams said. "He is as versatile as any player I've had. Handling the ball, playing big guys [on defense], running the point. He's like two guys coming off the bench. You can put him in different situations, and he handles it."

Nicholas plays a crucial role, in that Maryland relies on a three-man bench, as opposed to the five-man group that made the Terps the deepest team in the nation last season. The departure of seniors Terence Morris and Mike Mardesich, and especially the transfer of 6-8 junior small forward Danny Miller to Notre Dame, forced Nicholas into an expanded assignment a year after he assumed backup point-guard duty for the first time.

Nicholas had proved his resilience. Of all the players affected by last year's infamous meltdown against Duke, which erased a 10-point deficit in 54 seconds before stunning the Terps in overtime at Cole Field House, no one took the loss harder or took longer to get over it than Nicholas.

He missed two free throws with 40 seconds left that might have iced the game in regulation. When the Terps trudged into their locker room, a distraught Nicholas blamed himself for the defeat. It took nearly a month for him to break out of his doldrums. He did it by producing a career-high 10 assists in a 35-point trouncing of visiting Virginia, then hit a series of big shots in the NCAA tournament.

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