Nicholas hits spot as UM refresher off bench

March 24, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Maryland junior reserve guard Drew Nicholas is the beginning and the end, and covers most of the ground in the middle as well.

If you need a key rebound, call Nicholas. If you want a big stop, Nicholas is available for that, too. On some nights, he can run the offense. On other nights, he can play shooting guard or small forward.

But his primary role at Maryland hasn't changed: He can slow an opponent's scoring streak, or start one for the Terps. He is a pure shooter with such graceful form.

Swish.

For a player who averages 20.3 minutes and 7.2 points, he has significant impact.

Yesterday, most of the talk centered on the starting guards who are playing in today's Connecticut-Maryland game for the East Regional championship. But Maryland point guard Steve Blake laughs when Nicholas' name isn't mentioned with his, or All-America shooting guard Juan Dixon's.

But Nicholas does have the attention of the Huskies, and Atlantic Coast Conference opponents.

"Yeah, he is definitely a concern," said Huskies guard Tony Robertson, who is expected to match up with Dixon and Nicholas today. "He is a great shooter. Once he gets it going, he can shoot with anybody. You've just got to play him like you play Dixon. You've got to play him hard because they run a lot of screens for him just like they do for Dixon."

Blake said: "He gets overlooked by the media. In my opinion, he is the best sixth man in the country. He has done a lot of great things for us. He is going to play next season playing where Juan is playing. He is going to keep the production coming from that position. Drew was huge for us [Friday in Maryland's 78-68 win over Kentucky.]"

He had to come up big. Blake had a rare postseason off-night against Kentucky. He was 2-for-9 from the field, and 0-for-3 from three-point range. He scored four points, had four turnovers and only five assists in 31 minutes. There were times that Terps coach Gary Williams was so miffed by Blake's shot selection that he put him on the bench.

But as usual, Nicholas responded well. He played 20 minutes, finished with eight points, five assists and three rebounds. It was Nicholas who hit a three-point bomb with 7:51 remaining in the first half to open a lead Maryland held until early in the second half, and he connected on another three-pointer that put Maryland ahead, 56-53, with 9:50 remaining that gave the Terps momentum down the stretch.

He ran the offense well, and continued to make as many big baskets this season as any of the starters.

Maybe no one appreciates Nicholas as much as senior forward Byron Mouton, the Terps' fist-pumping, emotional leader. But Nicholas draws emotion in a different way.

He sucked the life out of Virginia and the fans at University Hall by hitting two three-pointers (both 27-footers) in the last three minutes in Maryland's 91-87 win against the Cavaliers on Jan. 31. He has put life back into the Terps and Cole Field House crowds many times when he goes on a shooting binge.

"It's a beautiful thing to have him come off the bench," Mouton said. "He is a momentum-changer. Sometimes you're tired, or maybe not having a good night. Then here comes Drew. He hits a couple and you're back in the game. Here is a man who can play the point, two or three positions [shooting guard or small forward]. You need role players like that to win a national championship, and I'm just glad he is on my team."

Nicholas came to Maryland from Long Island Lutheran High with the reputation of a sharpshooter averaging 24.2 points. His nickname was "The Specialist," which is tattooed on the left side of his chest.

But at Maryland, he has been the team's most versatile performer the past two years when Williams started rotating him through three positions. There was, and still is, an adjustment period.

"It gets a little confusing at times, especially having to go from point guard to small forward," said Nicholas, 6 feet 3, who shot .527 from the field and .500 on three-pointers against ACC opponents in the regular season. "That is probably the biggest adjustment because my roles change so quickly."

But Nicholas hasn't backed off. When he isn't playing, he is always studying Blake, Mouton and Dixon from the bench, wondering what he would do differently. He sees the game through three pairs of eyes.

Then, it's his turn.

"It sounds funny saying this, sometimes I almost don't want the first team to be playing great, so I can come in and give them a lift," Nicholas said. "I mean if they are off with an 18-2 run, how am I supposed to match that?"

He can't, but that's not his job. His job description varies. He has scored in double figures in seven of the past 18 games, and ranks ninth in Maryland history with 102 three-pointers.

On occasion, he is asked to guard players such as Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince or Wisconsin's Kirk Penney when Mouton needs a rest. Sometimes he has to provide scoring when Dixon slumps, or run the offense when Blake isn't performing well.

In the NCAA tournament, Nicholas is 9-for-19 from the field, including 6-for-12 from three-point range. He'll play even better next season as a full-time starter in place of Dixon, a senior.

"Next year is going to be his year to shine," Mouton said. "He will let people know how great of a player he is because he will be in a starting role, not a role player."

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