Blake Keeps Terps

On Point

College basketball: Focused solely on winning, junior point guard Steve Blake is enjoying his best season, running the Maryland offense with patience and precision.

March 07, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Steve Blake remains hidden among the stars, and that's fine with him.

Think of second-ranked Maryland, and the scoring and defensive gems of guard Juan Dixon spring to mind. So does the thought of center Lonny Baxter pounding away on the blocks, or forward Chris Wilcox soaring over everyone to grab one of those majestic rebounds or slam home a dunk.

Blake? He is merely the junior point guard who delivers the spark that makes so much of it happen. He is merely the guy with the buzz cut, the game-face scowl and the nasty competitive streak who has kept the offense humming and kept the bigger names happy throughout this magical season in College Park.

As Maryland (25-3) takes its regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title and top seed into the conference tournament, Blake will be starting the 98th game of his career. And he will be biding more time in the shadows, despite a four-month performance that has defined his position this season.

For the second straight year, Blake has led the ACC in assists. This year, his 8.1-assist average overall ranks second in the nation. In league play, he is the leader with 8.8 assists a game, and his 2.9-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (2.5-1 in all games) also is tops in the ACC.

"Where would this team be without that guy?" Baxter said when asked about Blake's steadying hand in the offense. "An unselfish point guard is the best type of point guard, and he's always looking to get somebody else a better shot."

"He hates to lose at HORSE. He goes out and competes like that all of the time," said junior forward Tahj Holden. "You don't always need a scoring point guard, but you need guys like him to run your team. I can't say enough good things about him."

Blake chose diplomacy when asked about the number of people who have downplayed his contribution during his finest season at Maryland. Blake was named to the All-ACC third team, and you can hear a hint of resentment in his careful words.

"I really don't know how to look at it. I'm kind of disappointed," Blake said. "A lot of point guards you see today are scorers. I have a lot of scorers around me. As long as my team keeps winning, I'm happy."

Said North Carolina coach Matt Doherty: "There is probably not a coach in the country that wouldn't like to have him. Steve Blake deserves more respect than he got. The point guard to me is the most important position on the floor, and he is the point guard on the No. 1 team in our league. He makes that offense go. Such a great passer. Tough kid."

From the time he first saw him play, Maryland coach Gary Williams liked that tough kid, too. The way he dug in to play defense. The way he commanded his teammates while directing traffic. The way he exploited openings by taking only the right shot. The way he loved having the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

Blake had the right disposition for a baptism by fire, and that's what he got when Williams handed him the ball as a freshman out of Oak Hill (Va.) Academy. He took some early hits for the team. In his first BB&T Classic, Blake was handled by George Washington's Sir Valiant Brown. He battled early season injuries, and Maryland lost its first three ACC games.

By the end of the year, the Terps were a second-place, 11-5 team, and outside of Dixon, Blake was Maryland's most improved player.

"Every game was new, every building was new, every matchup was new and often was against a really good point guard. There's no way we win 20 games that year, let alone 25, without him," Williams said. "Steve looks like a veteran player now. He's stronger, and he's playing like an older player."

Said Blake: "I've taken my injuries and my fair share of blows. I try to dish a few out."

Blake enjoys contact like a big man should, and at 6 feet 3, 165 pounds, you will not catch him backing down from anyone. Not even reigning Player of the Year Jason Williams, the Duke guard who has formed a position rivalry with Blake over three seasons.

Williams has led the conference in scoring for two seasons. But he had has some rough days against Blake, who is a better defender and ball-handler. In Maryland's 87-73 victory on Feb. 17, Blake had 13 assists and one turnover in 37 sparkling minutes, while Williams missed 16 of 22 shots and committed eight turnovers.

"He has given me some trouble, Williams said. "We expect to bring out the best in each other. That's the way it should be."

Williams has tweaked Blake, even recently, about staying consistent and giving his all-out effort against everyone, not just the big boys in the huge games. The consistency in Blake's game this season, from the way he has run the Terps' fast break to the way he has adhered to their pound-the-ball inside approach and kept feeding the hot shooter, has been striking.

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