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Senior Citizens

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

“I don't think any point guard that has ever played here should be ranked higher than Steve Blake. You couldn't get a better college point guard than him.”
— Maryland coach Gary Williams
By Gary Lambrecht
Baltimore Sun
March 10, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — For three years, he seemed to perform most of his best work in the background, hidden among an array of talented players who would get most of the credit for elevating the Maryland Terrapins to places the program had never been.

As his senior season winds down, point guard Steve Blake is the old shoe of the team. After all, he has started 132 games, which only hints at his impact in College Park.

Blake has set school records for assists and durability. He has retained the uncanny knack for making shots when Maryland most needs them. He has played the role of quarterback with such unselfishness and consistency that coach Gary Williams gave Blake the ultimate nod by honoring his jersey recently on Senior Night, meaning Blake's name forever will hang from the rafters at Comcast Center.

Senior Showcased Scoring Skills

In the twilight of his collegiate career, a run that includes the school's first NCAA championship, back-to-back trips to the
Final Four, the first regular-season conference title in 22 years and more than 100 victories, Blake has shifted with the times. After years of primarily setting the scoring table for future NBA players such as Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox and Terence Morris, Blake is enjoying a continuous coming-out party as a scoring threat in his own right.

Yes, the kid from Miami Lakes, Fla., with the buzz cut, the cold stare, the nasty competitive streak and the court vision that has created so many open shots for teammates, can shoot the ball and create some offense for himself.

“It's been different this year, having the freedom to create and being one of the main scoring options, knowing that if I take a shot and miss it, I probably am not going to come out of the game,” said Blake, the most experienced point guard in the nation and Maryland's lone returning starter from its NCAA title team. “I've always been able to score when I've played in pickup games. But whenever I've played college or any kind of organized ball, I've never been the first option. I still love making a great pass more than anything I do on the court. But I enjoy scoring. And I know I'm capable of doing it.”

When the Terps lost four starters — they also were the top four scorers — following last year's national title run, Blake sensed it would be his time to step up and produce more points. Williams made it clear in the offseason that more plays would be run with Blake in mind as the shooter. In the regular season, that came to pass.

Blake eclipsed his single-season highs in shots taken and shots made, averaged in double figures in scoring throughout the year — his previous high was 8.0 points as a junior — and was the most dangerous three-point shooter in the ACC. Entering the conference tournament, he was making 42.5 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

This season Blake simply perpetuated a facet of his game that has been there from the beginning. Throughout his career, he arguably has been Maryland's top clutch shooter this side of Dixon.

Value Most Obvious In Clutch

Williams remembers the great Blake crunch-time moments. There was the night as a sophomore when he snapped out of a shooting slump just in time to save the Terps from blowing a 22-point halftime lead at Penn by scoring 10 straight Maryland points in the game's final three minutes. Later that season, if Blake hadn't made a three-pointer and stolen an in-bounds pass in the final minute, Maryland would have lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to George Mason and never gotten near its first Final Four berth.

Last season, one day after the Terps opened the year with a loss to Arizona in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, no one was making shots for Maryland against Temple, except for Blake. His career-high 20-point effort led the Terps to victory. A month later, his six-for-six showing late in the game at the free throw line put down N.C. State. He made just one three-point attempt against Connecticut in the East Regional final. It just happened to be the game-clincher.

Not bad for a guy who, through his first three seasons, was not even voted as high as the all-conference second team.

“I call (Blake) an assassin,” North Carolina coach Matt Doherty said. “He's one of those guys who might only have four or five points late in the game. Then, boom, he gets you and he hurts you. He makes that offense go. Great passer. Tough kid. He deserves more respect than he gets.”

During his senior year, Blake has scored 20 or more points on four occasions and has delivered daggers all around. He scored Maryland's final seven points in a grueling 74-72 victory at Florida State, where the Terps avoided their first three-game losing streak in two years and began their late-season kick. In back-to-back blowout victories over North Carolina and Clemson, Blake made a series of jumpers and three-pointers that broke open competitive games.

Even in a recent, dramatic, come-from-behind win at N.C. State, Blake nearly went scoreless for the first time this season, but he made his lone basket count. It pulled the Terps even with the Wolfpack at 63 with 2:13 to go, setting the stage for a game-winning three-point basket by fellow guard Drew Nicholas. By the way, Blake delivered the pass and picked up the game-winning assist.

“Steve is not a perfect player, just a very determined player who always seems to make a great play after he makes a mistake,” Williams said. “He tries to make the tough play, and he wants to take the big shot. He doesn't worry about what if this pass doesn't work or this shot doesn't go down. That's part of the reason he's good. He's got guts. He needs that freedom.

“I've seen him miss a lot of shots when we're up by 15. But I've seen him make a lot of them when we really need them. That's the mark of a great player, and Steve has had a great four years here. He's played hurt. He's played steady. He's played smart. And you ultimately judge a point guard by wins. Nobody has ever won more games here.”

“He's probably the most unselfish player I've ever played with,” Nicholas said of Blake. “When he gets into his mode, his eyes start moving around from side to side and every which way. He's looking for guys, trying to find who's hot. He does what point guards are supposed to do.

“And he ain't going to back down from anybody. If we're in the trenches, he's probably the first guy I'm taking. Steve makes the tough plays. If he struggles early in the game, you know he's going to be there for us at the end. I don't think there is a situation he hasn't been in. He just goes out and gets it done.”

Handler, Passer, Leader, Winner

Even as a 5-4 elementary school student, Blake had a natural feel for the game and his place in it, while playing among bigger, older boys. Just ask Richard Blake, Steve's father, who coached his son before he was a teenager.

Richard, who drives from his South Florida home with his wife, Cindy, to watch nearly all of Steve's games in person, thinks he essentially is witnessing the same player as the skinny, undersized youth who had a way of running the show decisively without taking many shots.

“Steve has never really had to change his game too much, because he has been doing it this way his whole life,” Richard said. “He has always run the team, always gotten everybody involved in the offense. He didn't panic back then, and he doesn't panic now. He still wants to get the ball to the right people. He has always been a winner.”

Blake brought the winning pedigree to College Park, after producing a 100-4 record while playing for three different high schools. He spent his final year at Virginia-based prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, which defeated seven of the nation's top 25 teams while rolling to a 31-0 record and a mythical national championship in 1998-99. He was ranked among the top 50 seniors in the nation but wasn't considered a can't-miss superstar.

The idea of taking the ball immediately at Maryland, which was about to lose Steve Francis early to the NBA draft, helped drive Blake's decision to spurn a serious pitch by Syracuse and sign with the Terps. (N.C. State, once the frontrunner in the recruiting process, backed off Blake and signed Clifford Crawford.) Blake stepped into the driver's seat at Maryland as a freshman and led a team full of underclassmen to a 25-10 record and the team's seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

With that, Blake began a familiar pattern of getting lost in the noise created by bigger scoring threats at his position around the country, not to mention stars on his own squad such as Dixon and Baxter. But Blake typically has had a way of making people remember his game.

Few players in the country could put up such stiff resistance against former Duke superstar point guard Jason Williams, against whom Blake enjoyed some stellar defensive nights. And Blake seems like a throwback, with his willingness to pass up shots in order to keep his teammates involved. Sure, he wants the shot in the clutch, but nothing gets Blake going more than moving the offense forward with the right pass, the best decision.

“If a point guard is scoring too much, a lot of guys end up standing around and waiting for him to do something. You need to score, but the main thing is to spread the ball around to other people,” Blake said. “People like playing with point guards who play like that. The point guard sets the pace of the game, sets everything up.”

Blake has been so prolific at setting things up that he set the school record for assists as a junior. All season, he has been chasing the 1,000-assist mark, a plateau reached by only three other players (former ACC stars Bobby Hurley of Duke, Chris Corchiani of N.C. State and Ed Cota of North Carolina) in NCAA history.

Along the way, Blake has finished three years as the assist leader in the ACC, with a 7.0 average as a senior. For the past two seasons, Maryland has finished among the top three schools in the nation in assists. For the past three years, Blake has amassed a sparkling assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.35-to-1. And get this: Blake is the only player in league history who has produced 1,000 points, 800 assists, 400 rebounds and 200 steals.

Blake's biggest fan might be Maryland freshman point guard John Gilchrist, Blake's heir apparent, who sees his teammate the way many do. Blake is not the quickest off the dribble, not the fastest in the open floor, not an exceptional leaper, not the most gifted shooter. But in terms of grit and competitive fire and savvy, Gilchrist said practicing and playing with Blake is a treat and a learning experience.

“Sometimes people say basketball is all about skill and physical talent, but experience is vital, and (Blake) really knows the game,” Gilchrist said. “With him, the thinking aspect of the game is incredible. I'm trying to pick his brain, see what he sees, and incorporate that into my game. To watch him operate and play behind him is an honor. It's like the blueprint of what a college point guard should be.”

“There are certain players on teams that you can't be successful without, and Steve is definitely that guy for us,” senior forward Tahj Holden said. “If he's not there doing the things he does for us, I don't think we're the team we are this year, or even last year to an extent. I don't think we win the national championship without him being our point guard.”

Unfinished Business, Then NBA?

Blake does burn with the idea of taking care of some unfinished personal business. The memory of a subpar performance in last year's NCAA Tournament, which followed the best regular season of his career, still haunts him.

Over the last five games of the tournament, Blake made seven of 29 shots (24.1 percent), although he did record 29 assists against 14 turnovers. But he took some heat after poor showings against Kentucky in the regional semifinals and against Indiana in the title game. The stumble also forced Blake to back off an intention to test the NBA draft waters as an early entry.

“I don't know if I put too much pressure on myself. I did well enough to help us win a championship, but I just didn't play well by my standards,” Blake said. “It's one of those things where you don't know why it's going on or why you can't get out of it. I don't plan on letting that happen this year. I plan on playing well throughout the tournament.

“I need to be playing at the top of my game (in the NCAA Tournament) this year,” he added, noting that there is no proven power duo of Dixon and Baxter to fall back on this time around. “I like to put that pressure on myself. I know if I play well, I'm going to make my teammates better, and we'll go far.”

Williams said he has seen a different look in those cold eyes of Blake's this year, especially when the ACC season heated up and the games got bigger as Maryland stayed in contention for another conference crown.

Unlike in previous seasons, Blake has not hesitated to show emotion or get up close while making a point to a teammate. A midseason, two-game losing streak to Virginia and Georgia Tech lit an additional fuse.

“Steve does a great job of hiding his emotions, but when we lost those two games, you could see him getting more vocal and more demonstrative,” Williams said. “He's letting his feelings get out there more.”

Blake thinks maturity and the refinement of his game should help the Terps go deep into the NCAA Tournament again and will improve his NBA prospects.

He said he has learned not to try making a great pass every trip down the floor, not to leave his feet carelessly, not to force things or the tempo without a purpose. And while his passing and overall floor game have continued to grow, he relishes the thought of taking the crucial shot with the game hanging in the balance.

“I want to carry this team. I'm trying to be aggressive, do everything I can to make us and me be successful,” Blake said. “I think I'm going to be good enough to play in the NBA. I have improving to do, but you always can get better.

“I've been here (at Maryland) for so long, I feel like an old man, like I've been here forever. I'm a different guy than the one who first got here. I've experienced a lot. It's great to know that any time people come here, they'll see my name in the rafters and know I did a lot. I know I made a great decision by coming here. I'll definitely look back on my time here and be happy.”

“I don't think any point guard that has ever played here should be ranked higher than Steve Blake,” Williams said. “You couldn't get a better college point guard than him.”

Blake At Maryland

1999-00 31.9 7.0 3.0 6.2 40.8 68.6 36.3 Final
2000-01 28.8 6.9 3.0 6.9 39.9 71.4 39.4 Semis
2001-02 32.0 8.0 3.8 7.9 38.2 82.4 34.4 Semis
2002-03 32.6 11.9 3.6 7.1 41.6 81.3 42.5 ???

First in ACC: 1,000 points, 800 assists, 400 rebounds, 200 steals
Three-time ACC assists leader; fourth in career assists
Among Maryland leaders in starts (1st), games (2nd), wins (2nd)

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