Fiery Mouton sparks Terps

Matchup vs. Dunleavy could be key Sunday

February 15, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Byron Mouton understands how lucky he is.

As a senior small forward with the No. 3 Maryland Terrapins, Mouton plays basketball with joy and passion he can't hide. He is full of demonstrative emotion on the court, be it a pumping fist to accentuate a basket, a scream and the shake of his head to punctuate a slam or that ferocious look the comes over him as he tears the ball away from an opponent or two while claiming another rebound.

Mouton doesn't talk much trash, although he relishes those dirty-work moments that are his signature.

Chances are the Maryland player who is leaping into the stands while pursuing a loose ball is Mouton. Chances are the guy who is turning a broken play into two points is Mouton. No Terrapin spends more time hitting the floor. No wonder he draws so many adoring "Moo" chants from the home crowd.

What makes Mouton scary as Maryland (20-3, 10-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) hits the stretch run of its regular season and welcomes top-ranked Duke for a much-anticipated rematch at Cole Field House on Sunday is the man from Rayne, La., happens to be playing the best ball of his life.

"It's great to see a senior wind up his college career like this. Byron has been great. At both ends of the court, he's getting after it," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "He has steadily been playing tough minutes for us and been a catalyst. He really sacrifices for the team."

Mouton's matchup against Duke swing forward Mike Dunleavy looms as maybe the biggest of the game.

In the first meeting between these elite teams, Mouton, 6 feet 6 and 215 pounds, scored six points in the first half and played solid defense on Dunleavy. In the second half, Mouton went scoreless and struggled on defense to the point where Williams ended up assigning smaller players like 6-3 guards Juan Dixon and Drew Nicholas to guard the 6-9 Dunleavy.

Dunleavy capitalized and sparked the Blue Devils to a 99-78 victory by scoring all 19 of his second-half points over the game's final 10 minutes.

Based on the way he has played against most of his ACC competition this season, and particularly since that Duke loss, Mouton probably won't let that happen again.

Since he started a scoring spurt in December, Mouton has been on a roll. In 11 conference games, he is averaging 13.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, is shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 79.5 percent at the foul line, and is playing the most consistent defense of his career.

Mouton, who transferred to Maryland from Tulane in 1999, sat out for a season, and became a part of the Terps' drive to the Final Four a year ago, hears the clock ticking on his college days. And the sad memory of losing his older brother, Kevin, in an incident more than two months ago has injected more drive into a player who rarely lacks energy.

"You never know when your career is going to end. I've taken that into consideration," said Mouton, referring to the Dec. 2 shooting that claimed the life of his brother in Houston. "I'm sorry it had to take something tragic like that to happen to make me realize that any given day it could be over. Thank God I can play basketball. I just want to come out and play hard every day."

No one loves the game or is more popular among his teammates than Mouton. Junior forward Ryan Randle, a newcomer from Allegany College, said Mouton went out of his way to make him feel comfortable on campus. Williams has always admired Mouton's penchant for showing up early for practice and staying late to do extra shooting.

Mouton's enthusiasm was noticeable immediately a year ago, when he displaced Danny Miller in the starting lineup after four games and ultimately sent Miller on a transfer route to Notre Dame. But Mouton's ability to play defense and score - he was Tulane's leading scorer as a freshman and sophomore - did not show up with much consistency.

By his own admission, Mouton needed to improve his conditioning and has done so. That in turn has helped him produce more in the second half of games and develop a more dangerous jump shot that has more arc than the flatter shot he had as a junior.

With a deadly medium-range jumper and his relentless style on the glass, Mouton has carried Maryland at times. For example, he personally kept the Terps within striking distance of Virginia two weeks ago with a 16-point, seven-rebound first half.

Mouton just wants to keep his momentum going and help the Terps push their way back to another Final Four. In his last five games, he is averaging 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds and shooting a torrid 59 percent.

"I've had a lot of fun. To be able to go to a Final Four in my first time ever being in the tournament was amazing," he said. "This year, I have a chance to win a national championship. In two years playing at Maryland, you can't get much better than that."

Next for Terps

Matchup: No. 3 Maryland (20-3, 10-1) vs. No. 1 Duke (23-1, 11-1)

Site: Cole Field House, College Park

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

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