In clutch, Nicholas fuels Terps' drive

Basketball: Two years after his lowest on-court moment, Drew Nicholas is carrying Maryland in the NCAA tournament, making big shots in pressure situations.

Ncaa Tournament

March 27, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - With apologies to Butler, Drew Nicholas is penning what may be the sweetest success story in this NCAA tournament.

Midway through his college basketball career, Nicholas was best known as the guy who blew an epochal game against Duke. Now, he is Maryland's Mr. Clutch.

Two years after his suspect handle and dry mouth squandered a big lead on the despised Blue Devils, Nicholas needed just five seconds to dribble nearly 30 yards through UNC-Wilmington, launch an off-balance three-pointer and land on the happier side of the Terps' legend.

That display of athleticism and grit last Friday in Nashville - and more of the same in a second-round disposal of Xavier on Sunday - allowed Nicholas and the rest of the Terps to awaken this morning in San Antonio. No matter how Maryland fares against Michigan State in a South Regional semifinal tomorrow night, Nicholas' legacy is secure.

The lean kid from Long Island led sixth-seeded Maryland back to the Sweet 16. Last year he was the sixth man on the NCAA champs. Nicholas played a similar role as a sophomore, on the first Terps team to get to the Final Four, but that season produced a lowlight that has become a staple on ESPN Classic.

The night before Super Bowl XXXV, Steve Blake left the Duke game at Cole Field House with five fouls. The point guard spot was assumed by Nicholas, who missed three of four free-throw attempts as the Terps lost a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds of regulation, and the game in overtime.

"To be totally honest, I can't remember when it was put away," Nicholas said of any psychological scars. "That game is always going to be there. As a player, it hurts to be in those situations and not succeed. Every day, I prepare myself so that never happens again and I never have to feel that way. It's part of me. It's what made me stronger, because I didn't break. Maybe that had a little something to do with my shot against UNC-Wilmington."

Coach Gary Williams runs a basketball team, not a self-esteem seminar, and a thick skin is as essential as a shooting stroke to earn minutes at Maryland. A month to the day after that 2001 collapse, the Terps went to Cameron Indoor Stadium. For the second straight year, they earned an upset victory there, but Nicholas played a career-low two minutes.

He soldiered on, and is a captain equipped to counsel teammates in the doghouse. Supplying that senior touch, however, required an enormous adjustment from a first-year starter.

"It's fun, finally being a senior," Nicholas said. "You get that leadership role, but in some respects, I still am the little brother. I'm still learning, from my brother Chris and also from Juan. In different situations, they're still teaching me. I'll use the things they taught me and pass them on. That's the thing about this program. Knowledge trickles down, and it feels good to pass some along."

Chris would be Nicholas' only sibling, who received a wonderful 30th birthday gift from Nashville via CBS last Friday. His other "big brother" is Juan Dixon, the Washington Wizards rookie and Maryland folk hero whom Nicholas replaced after three seasons as his understudy. It's been a thankless task, and while he struggled in some big games, Nicholas' work had heretofore been unappreciated.

Nicholas, who at 6 feet 3 can still work a shift at the small forward spot or start the offense from the point, more than doubled his scoring average to 17.8 points, second best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He received more votes than any shooting guard, but it wasn't enough to make first team all-ACC, as the first five consisted of two point guards, one of them Blake, and three small forwards.

Last weekend, Nicholas delivered many Dixon-like moments. A decisive 11-4 run against Xavier began with his three-pointer from the top of the key, and three possessions later he beat his man off the dribble for a pull-up jumper on the left side that evoked a key shot Dixon made in last year's NCAA final against Indiana.

Like Dixon, Nicholas was shepherded through adolescence by an older brother, but in several respects he's the anti-Juan.

Phil Dixon starred for Division III Shenandoah College before returning to Baltimore City and joining its police force. Chris Nicholas played for Colgate, but a knee injury in his freshman year derailed his career. He got one minute when the Red Raiders and Adonal Foyle were crushed at Cole in December 1994. A few weeks later, he left the team, but basketball wasn't the only iron in his fire.

Chris Nicholas has a degree in history, an MBA from North Carolina and a job as a financial analyst for IBM. His younger brother is majoring in government and politics. Their father, Andrew, is an attorney, and mother Yvonne is the principal at a preschool. Nicholas might not be as desperate to make a name for himself as was Dixon, who lost his parents to Baltimore's heroin epidemic, but on a court, he also grew up in a hurry.

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