- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2002

Call it poetic justice. Sweet revenge. Or just the wacky basketball life of Drew Nicholas.

Until recently, Maryland's junior guard was best known as the poster child of the "Gone in 54 Seconds" game in which the Terrapins blew a 10-point lead in the final minute and lost to Duke last season at Cole Field House. The low-light that will live forever from one of the most public chokings in college basketball is Jason Williams ripping the ball away from Nicholas and delivering a 3-point dagger in the Blue Devils' 40th-minute resuscitation.

"It's kind of funny how ESPN does their top plays of the year and top finishes," said Nicholas, whose three missed free throws in the game's final 61 seconds could have brought Maryland a victory. "I was watching and was just like, 'Don't let that be No. 1.'"

The top-ranked Blue Devils return to Cole tomorrow in what appears to be the unofficial ACC regular season championship game. No.3 Maryland (20-3, 10-1 ACC) will attempt to dethrone five-time champion Duke (23-1, 11-1 ACC), and Nicholas' development is a prime reason for the Terps' optimism.

Nicholas has had it rough since last season's Duke debacle, and has come out a more mature person and better player. He is Maryland's top reserve at three positions point guard, shooting guard and small forward, the last a new role for him this season. The 6-foot-3 Long Island native has transformed his reputation from a goat to a savvy veteran known for delivering in the clutch.

The moment of epiphany came in Maryland's remarkable comeback two weeks ago when the Terps erased a nine-point deficit with a little more than three minutes to play against Virginia. Maryland stunned the Charlottesville crowd in much the same way Duke demoralized Maryland last season. This time Nicholas delivered direct hits on two 3-point bombs to devastate the Cavaliers.

"Very rarely doesn't the old wheel come around for you," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "The only thing I told Drew after the Duke game last year when he missed two one-and-one free throws during that last minute was that he would get another chance in that situation somewhere in his career. Just be ready when it comes.

"I really think the game down at Virginia, that situation was kind of there. If Drew doesn't make those two 3-pointers from deep, we don't win. I spoke to Drew briefly after the game and said, 'Tonight was your night.'"

Nicholas is now playing the best basketball of his career. He was stuck in the dumps for about a month after last season's fallout against Duke. He didn't regain his confidence until the end of the season, when he scored 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting in a rout of Virginia,

These days Nicholas is on a shooting tear. He has made 22 of 37 shots (58 percent) and 10 of 19 3-pointers in his last eight games, beginning with making five of six and scoring 12 points in last month's loss at Duke.

"Your confidence gets shaky a little bit any time you miss free throws like that in that kind of a game," said Nicholas, who no longer cringes when he sees clips of the Duke disaster. "You really have to dig deep to believe that you are supposed to be out on the floor. It's one of those things that you just can't sleep out and pop up the next day and nothing would be wrong. It's something that has just made me stronger as a person and a basketball player."

Nicholas said regular conversations with his brother Chris, a former player at Colgate, helped get him out of his funk.

This season Nicholas, who has a tattoo on the left side of his chest that says "The Specialist" because he was labeled simply a shooter in high school, has developed an all-around game. Next season's heir apparent to Juan Dixon at shooting guard has proved a competent ballhandler and playmaker and even, at times, a defensive stopper.

Nicholas was only in at the end of last season's Duke game at Cole because point guard Steve Blake had fouled out. He replaced Blake again at Virginia but this time because he merited it.

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