As Blake goes, so go title chances for Terps

February 18, 2002|By Mike Preston

COLLEGE PARK - The key to the University of Maryland winning a national championship lies in the ball-handling of point guard Steve Blake.

There is enough talent in the frontcourt to overcome slumps and enough depth to survive injuries. But if Blake is out to lunch against a team like Duke or Kansas, the Terps' chances of winning decrease significantly.

And when the junior from Miami Lakes, Fla., is on, Maryland is virtually unbeatable.

Blake was in a zone yesterday. Don't be concerned about the eight points. Just look at the 13 assists, six rebounds and final result: No. 3 Maryland 87, No. 1 Duke 73, before a crowd of 14,500 in perhaps the last big impact game at Cole Field House.

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of Lonny Baxter has been corrected for the electronic database. See microfilm for original story.

Blake's most important contribution can't be measured in statistics. What he did was basically control the game from start to finish, something he has often failed to do throughout his first two years, especially against Duke last season.

When the Terps blew a 10-point lead in the final minute against Duke last season at Cole, Blake was on the bench in foul trouble. When Maryland blew a 22-point lead to Duke in the Final Four last season, one of the main reasons was Blake kept pushing the ball instead of taking the air out of it.

He has had a problem slowing down, going from a fast pace to a player out of control when he should have been running a more deliberate half-court offense. But that's changed.

At least, the Terps hope.

Blake is more poised. He is passing up his own shot and pounding it inside to forward Chris Wilcox and center Lonny Baxter, who combined for 34 points yesterday. He has finally gotten the message, one that can make a difference in winning a national title.

Great teams need good point guards. They don't have to be great, just control the flow in Big Games.

"He is really good when he plays his game," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "Steve has his game, Jason has his game, we all have our game. He kept us in that game for 40 minutes today.

"When you play against guards like that and handle the ball like he did, that gets overlooked sometimes because of points and rebounds," said Williams. "That's equally as valuable to a team's success when you play a good basketball team. You really have to role play in those situations."

Blake didn't just role play. He was sensational. Most of his rebounds were off three-point attempts by Duke where he did a great job of blocking out Williams and Chris Duhon. A month ago in a 99-78 Duke win, Williams tortured Blake and the Terps' guards with penetration to the basket for layups or passes back out to the perimeter for three-pointers.

There wasn't much of that yesterday. The Terps KO'd Williams early while driving to the basket to set the tone, and Blake and the rest of the Terps' guards shut down the middle lanes.

Blake had 13 assists and only one turnover against one of the best guard tandems in the league. Some of the passes were extraordinary, like the one he whirled across the paint to Wilcox, who then shuffled it to Mouton for a layup with 8 minutes left in the first half. Or the one he sliced through two defenders to Wilcox for a layup with 16:28 remaining in the game.

"His floor game was really outstanding," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Said Gary Williams: "When you touch the ball as many times as he did and have only one turnover, that's amazing. You want a player to be aggressive, so you want him to look down court. And we got several breakaways because we did look down court. At the same time, there is a fine line there, and I thought Steve really walked that line about being aggressive yet taking care of the ball."

Besides his passes, Blake had three other great moments. Twice he nearly broke Duhon's ankles, one on a cross dribble at midcourt that nearly sent Duhon into the press table.

The third was special. With nine seconds left in the first half, Jason Williams had the ball near midcourt in front of the press table while Krzyzewski was yelling at his guard from the bench.

What for? No one knows. The ball was already in the hands of college basketball's best player, but there is a suspicion that Coach K was grandstanding for his favorite sycophant, Dickie V, who was probably panting about how "Coach K works a game for every second babyyy!"

As soon as Williams turned around to face Krzyzweski a second time, Blake stole the ball and scored on a layup at the buzzer for a 38-29 lead. It was embarrassing for Krzyzewski.

It was a great moment in sports.

"Coach K kept yelling at him, and he kept looking back," said Blake. "I thought if he did it one more time, take his eye off the ball, I was going to go after it. That was a momentum swinger because they didn't get off the last shot, and we scored."

Blake had that kind of day. He kept control of the game for only a few minutes in the second half when the Terps let shooting guard Juan Dixon control the ball. Dixon may be a great free-throw shooter, but he's no Curly Neal.

Give the ball to Blake. That's the key for this season. Dixon is an excellent player, but is more effective moving without the ball. The Terps have great inside strength, but they still need an effective point guard to handle presses and get the ball into the front court.

Maryland doesn't have another ballhandler like Blake. Drew Nicholas doesn't have his vision. Danny Miller transferred to Notre Dame.

That leaves only Blake. He really is the meal ticket to the national championship. It's in his hands.

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