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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | ON GOLDEN POND
/ MARYLAND

Odd Squad Works

Jasikevicius leads an unlikely collection of overachievers against Arizona.

March 19, 1998|J.A. ADANDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back when Joe Smith was a sophomore at the University of Maryland, before he was making enough money to take the entire campus out to lunch, he had to borrow Sarunas Jasikevicius' dining card to eat at a school cafeteria.

Three years have passed, Smith has gone on to the NBA and Jasikevicius' duties have expanded. Now he's providing a meal ticket for the entire Terrapin team.

Jasikevicius (pronounced yes-uh-KAV-uh-chuss) has averaged 12 points a game this season and is Maryland's top three-point shooter and best free-throw shooter. He made two early three-point baskets to get the Terrapins going in their NCAA second-round game against Illinois, then broke a tie with a three-pointer with 3:55 remaining and scored his team's only other field goal in the final four minutes of a 67-61 victory that set up tonight's regional semifinal game against Arizona.

This from a guy who played only six minutes a game as a freshman and almost transferred after his sophomore season.

"It was hard on him," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "He came from Lithuania, he was in high school for a year. We had good players. We had Johnny Rhodes, who was there at the second guard. There were guys who were veterans. It's unusual for a guy to be that patient."

Jasikevicius' patience nearly ran out. He came to America to go to college and play basketball, not to go to college and sit on the bench.

"I was close to leaving," he said. "I didn't think things could work out here. But I had a good conversation with Coach Williams and it changed my mind."

"He came in after his sophomore year," Williams said. "He said, 'Am I going to play next year?' I said, 'Yeah, you've got a chance to start.' I didn't promise it to him, but I told him he had a great chance. He could have gone back and played professionally and made $100,000 in Lithuania, but he chose to stay."

Jasikevicius is part of an unlikely collection of overachievers. Junior Laron Profit has harnessed his mercurial talent to become the top scorer. Obinna Ekezie, a 6-foot-10 junior center from Nigeria who didn't start to play until he was 18, has developed from a project into a legitimate player. Point guard Terrell Stokes had to make a dramatic turnaround in his life merely to get to college. Although Maryland fans love to scream out his shortcomings, he keeps coming up with big plays, including a three-pointer late in the Illinois game.

"I like our team, because they've all achieved more than people thought they would as individual basketball players, and yet that hasn't gotten them out of being team players," Williams said. "In other words, whatever individual success they've had, they've been willing to give it to the team."

But they have taken pride in their accomplishments. The Terrapins are back in the Sweet 16, advancing just as far as they did in 1995, Smith's last season before he left to join the NBA as the No. 1 draft pick.

"That Sweet 16, it wasn't my team," Jasikevicius said. "I sat on the bench a lot. The last two years, exit in the first round.

"That hurt, obviously. This is mine and Rodney and Matt's team," he said of Rodney Elliott and Matt Kovarik. "We're responsible for this team. It's big. It feels real nice."

Four teams have held the No. 1 ranking this season, and Maryland knocked off two of them: Kansas and North Carolina. Now the Terrapins get a shot at a third, Arizona. All three of those teams received No. 1 seeds in the tournament. (So did Duke, which beat Maryland by a total of 59 points in their two meetings.)

"Teams that are intimidated by Arizona don't play the kind of schedule we played," Kovarik said.

No need to worry about the fear factor.

But there is one nagging question: How did Smith, who is black, get away with using the ID card of Jasikevicius, who is white and has more letters in his first name alone than Smith has in his entire name?

"They never check," Jasikevicius said.

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