- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

Guard Drew Nicholas has waited four years to lead Maryland in the postseason. He had better produce or it might be a brief tenure.

The No. 14 Terrapins (19-8) meet North Carolina (16-14) in tomorrow's ACC tournament first round, and the Terps need Nicholas to deliver a string of high-scoring efforts for the entire tournament. With the frontcourt embarrassed in the regular season's final game, an 80-78 overtime loss to Virginia, Maryland's postseason fortunes depend on the backcourt.

Nicholas scored 27 points against Virginia, but his game-winning 3-point attempt rimmed out in the closing seconds. Guard Steve Blake converted two late 3-pointers, his only points. Nicholas is the Terps' leading scorer (17.7) and must keep defenses from sagging underneath to neutralize Maryland's big men. Otherwise, the Terps are long shots to advance very far in the ACC or NCAA tournaments.

"I've been waiting to get to this point," Nicholas said. "This is where players shine the brightest."

Certainly, Nicholas has proved worthy of coach Gary Williams' confidence to attempt the game-winner against Virginia. His 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds remaining beat N.C. State 68-65 on March 2.

There were plenty of other big moments in the senior's first season as a starter that earned him All-ACC second team honors. He scored 29 points in an 84-77 victory over Georgia Tech on Dec. 29 and 24 against then-No. 1 Duke 87-72 on Jan. 18. Nicholas scored at least 20 points in nine games and was in double digits in 25 of 27 games.

"We don't need Drew to score 40 points a game for us to be successful," forward Tahj Holden said, "but we need him to make shots."

Nicholas has been plagued by comparisons to predecessor Juan Dixon, who led Maryland to the national title last spring before departing as a first-round NBA pick. Sitting behind Dixon for three years wasn't easy for the former Long Island prep star, who became an effective spot shooter in relief. Nicholas learned to score inside so defenders wouldn't always bullrush his 3-point attempts for fear he'd continue to the basket. Nicholas also finished with a team-high 120 free throw attempts to average nearly four points at the line.

"Drew has a toughness about him where he'll make big plays," North Carolina coach Matt Doherty said. "He was a tough kid who, coming out of high school, I don't know if you say he's a top-25 recruit, but he's [now] one of the better players in the best league in the country."

But Nicholas needs Blake to regain his shooting touch in order to shake free from double teams. Blake converted three of 17 attempts in the final two games and didn't even look for his shot in long stretches. The tandem passed to each other three times on a fastbreak underneath the basket against Virginia, each trying to get the other his points.

Blake (11.9) scored nearly four points more than last year in earning All-ACC honors. He scored 20 points or more four times after reaching that figure just once in his first three years. Blake offset poor shooting nights by looking for Nicholas and collected 10 assists against Virginia.

"Blake's just steady," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He shows up every game and now is stepping up even more in a scoring role. He would always step up when they needed a big shot."

Nicholas and Blake have been nostalgic in recent weeks. Winning the national title last year left little to prove this season from a team standpoint. Still, they'd like to exit with the team's first ACC tournament title since 1984 before heading to the NBA. However, Maryland advances only as long as the tandem produces.

"It does make everything that much bigger," Blake said. "It's the last chance to win games and be part of Maryland. It's definitely big for me."

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