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COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Eric Maynor is an uncommon talent, and a threat to UCLA

Virginia Commonwealth's star guard took down Duke with a game-winning jumper in a 2007 NCAA first-round upset. Now he and the Rams have the Bruins in their sights.

March 17, 2009|David Wharton

This time of year, people are bound to approach Eric Maynor, wanting to reminisce about the shot.

A 16-foot jumper. Two seconds on the clock. Virginia Commonwealth upsets mighty Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Maynor listens politely and thanks them when they finish congratulating him for the hundredth time. But two years have gone by since his shining moment and he'd rather move on.

"That's in the past," Maynor says. "I'm trying to live in the present."

As in leading VCU back into March Madness, this time against 18th-ranked UCLA in the first round of the East Regional in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Last-second heroics aside, the senior point guard has matured into a player who can do more than just hit the clutch shot. He is one of only three players in the nation to average more than 22 points and six assists this season.

George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga, whose team has been burned by Maynor more than once, calls him a "magician."

"He does so many things," Larranaga said. "He waves his magic wand and all of a sudden he's got 32 points or 10 assists or he's got a big steal."

That's a big reason why some people consider 11th-seeded VCU a serious threat to upend sixth-seeded UCLA at the Wachovia Center.

"You can't be intimidated when you go out there," Maynor said. "Man, it's college basketball."

Like a lot of kids who grew up playing the game, Maynor spent countless hours in a friend's backyard or at the park in his tiny hometown of Raeford, N.C., pretending that he had the ball in his hands with a big game on the line, the clock ticking down.

But as he grew to a lithe 6 feet 3, that kid came to appreciate the finer parts of his sport. Like the Bruins, VCU prides itself on shutting down opponents, transforming stops and turnovers into transition baskets.

"We talk a lot about defense," Coach Anthony Grant said earlier this season, "and trying to make it a staple of our team."

The players put it another way:

"We play 94 feet." Meaning the entire court.

Maynor had a solid season as a freshman in 2005-06, then truly blossomed when Grant -- a former top assistant to Billy Donovan at Florida -- arrived in Richmond the following spring.

As a sophomore, Maynor averaged just shy of 14 points and set a school record for assists in a season. Even before the Duke shot, he all but willed his team into the tournament with a remarkable performance against George Mason in the previous game, scoring nine straight points in the final 2 minutes 22 seconds.

That stretch included two steals for layups, a defensive rebound and two free throws.

The Rams' brief but exciting foray into March Madness -- they lost in the second round -- generated great expectations last season, but VCU stumbled in the Colonial Athletic Assn. tournament, which goes a long way toward explaining why Maynor seems uncomfortable in the spotlight.

"I just know that without my teammates, I can't win," he said. "It's not about just one person."

This winter, the Rams surrounded their star with a far more capable supporting cast and made a point of not relying solely on him.

Forward Larry Sanders, with his vast wingspan, has become more than just a shot blocker. Freshman Bradford Burgess has played well and sophomore Brandon Rozzell was a sparkplug in the recent CAA tournament.

Maynor has been glad to assume the role of veteran quarterback, more than happy to divide the points, insistent upon sharing the acclaim.

"All the publicity and the negative parts of our game have not polluted him," Nevada Coach Mark Fox said. "He's a great player, as good as we've seen."

Which isn't to say that he has given up on last-second heroics.

Circle back to those boyhood years at the local park. Maynor figures it was more than just daydreaming; it was preparation for bigger things to come.

"You grow up doing that," he said, "you feel comfortable taking shots."

So the Rams still consider him their go-to guy, and he has come through at several crucial junctures during a 24-9 season that included a victory over tournament-bound Akron and an 11-point loss to Oklahoma, seeded No. 2 in the South Regional.

Now comes a matchup with another experienced, defense-minded point guard -- the Bruins' Darren Collison -- both of them projected to be first-round picks in the next NBA draft.

"It's going to be a battle for 40 minutes," Maynor said. "That's how it's going to be."

It might also be a chance to make another memory.

--

david.wharton@latimes.com

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