Nicholas-Blake backcourt again at forefront

March 24, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Xavier was in the midst of putting together a great comeback when Maryland coach Gary Williams re-inserted shooting guard Drew Nicholas with about 10 minutes left in the game and the Terps ahead by eight points.

Nicholas walked onto the court, stretched one arm and then the other. He bent over to touch his toes, and then looked to the mob of Maryland fans sitting behind the bench. He calmly nodded to them, and then he smiled.

And then Nicholas, along with his best friend and backcourt mate Steve Blake, put together one exciting stretch in which Maryland scored on its next five possessions during a nearly three-minute run that eliminated Xavier from the NCAA tournament.

Final score: Maryland 77, Xavier 64, at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.

Guess who is back in the Sweet 16 again?

It's Maryland, this time with Blake and Nicholas grabbing the headlines.

Oops, sorry.

Is it Nicholas and Blake?

"We're best friends; it's just one of those bonds we got," Nicholas said. "Obviously, the momentum was in their favor at that point. Time in and time out, we're going to be there to make plays. If it's not me, hopefully it's Steve. If not Steve, then one of our big guys. It can really be anybody, but most of the time the ball ends up in either me or Steve's hands."

Williams wouldn't have it any other way.

It's a rarity to have one or two seniors in the starting lineup with the NBA snatching up so many underclassmen. But the Terps start four, two of them in the backcourt.

Their game plan is simple: Pray that inconsistent big men Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle can deliver solid games inside, then let Blake or Nicholas carry them in the clutch.

Blake and Nicholas have pulled it off many times this season. The tandem finished off UNC-Wilmington in the first round Friday night, when Blake connected on a three-pointer to put Maryland ahead 72-71 with 20 seconds remaining, and Nicholas hit that game-winning, highlight-film three-pointer at the buzzer for a 75-73 win.

Then came yesterday.

Holden, Randle, Jamar Smith and Travis Garrison had done an admirable job of banging around and getting position on Musketeers forward David West, enough to push him off the block quite a few times. But West started wearing them down as the Musketeers -- down 45-28 at halftime -- pulled within 60-57 with 6:15 left in the game.

Then it was Blake's and Nicholas' time.

Nicholas took a pass near midcourt, used a crossover dribble and hit a three-pointer to put Maryland ahead 63-57 with 5:55 remaining.

No big deal, huh?

We've seen him do this many times. Only this time, the ankles Nicholas broke on the play belonged to forward Romain Sato, maybe the best defender on the court. Then 33 seconds later, Blake buried a 14-footer from the right baseline to put Maryland ahead 65-59.

The Terps were feeling it, so much so in fact, that as Blake started downcourt after hitting the jumper, he glared at Xavier guard Dedrick Finn.

With 4:29 remaining, Smith delivered a two-handed dunk off a lob pass from Holden, and 44 seconds later Nicholas hit another jumper. Not to be outdone by his backcourt mate, Blake gave a nice assist to Smith on a layup for a 71-61 lead with 3:18 remaining.

That was basically it. End of game, with Blake's and Nicholas' signatures all over it.

"It was huge," Blake said of Nicholas' three-point shot. "They were making a great run at us, putting us on our heels. Drew came up and gave us a lot of confidence with that shot. We just went from there.

"It means a lot when you have seniors. Drew and I have been playing together for four years. We know what we're capable of doing. When it gets into crunch time of these situations, we've been here before and we're real comfortable with each other."

Blake and Nicholas set the tone early. While watching tape of Xavier, Williams noticed that the Musketeers were slow getting back on defense. He ordered an up-tempo game, but West and center Anthony Myles weren't the only Musketeers who couldn't keep up.

Finn and backcourt mate Lionel Chalmers couldn't handle the blistering pace of Blake pushing the ball, and Xavier players had problems fighting through the screens of Maryland big men in the first half. And when Holden or Randle drew Myles or West away from the basket, Maryland blew by them for easy baskets, including four dunks in the first half.

Nicholas had 11 points in the first half and Blake had five assists as the Terps shot 52.9 percent from the floor.

But Blake and Nicholas weren't good on just the offensive end. They did a good job of splitting the difference between West and his guards on potential lob situations. There were times when they hustled back and pestered West into throwing the ball back outside.

They simply played a complete game. Nicholas finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Blake had nine points and nine assists, but more importantly, the guards crunched Xavier in crunch time.

"That kind of experience is invaluable, and it will win a lot of games for you in March when a lot of teams are tired because it's such a long schedule," Williams said.

"We ran a lot of three-guard last year. Drew wasn't a starter, but we brought him in late in games to handle the ball, take shots or make foul shots. Steve can see nine players out there at once, and still make that critical pass."

Nicholas, though, couldn't leave the first two rounds without a warning for other teams.

"If you check the history of the tournament, a lot of teams have done well with an experienced backcourt," he said, seconds before leaving the locker room.

He smiled again.

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