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He grows on them

BC's Sanders has matured; now he's a big-time player

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / March 18, 2009
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Rakim Sanders's growth as a Boston College basketball player has been off the charts. From his freshman year to his sophomore season, the rugged 6-foot-5-inch, 225-pounder from Pawtucket, R.I., has emerged as coach Al Skinner's most versatile player in the starting five.

"He obviously has grown a lot," Skinner said. "His basketball talent has always been there, but what he's starting to do is he's starting to become a little more of a student of the game.

"I wasn't sure if he was going to embrace that part of it because he had physical talent and he just felt at times that he could just use that.

"Now he's really trying to understand and trying to make it a little easier for himself so he can be more consistent. When you become a student, you can become more consistent because you'll be able to figure out how you can continue to be successful."

When the seventh-seeded Eagles (22-11) face 10th-seeded Southern Cal (21-12) in the first round of the Midwest Regional Friday night in Minneapolis, Sanders hopes to be able to spread his wings in his first appearance in an NCAA Tournament.

"I'm excited," he said. "Growing up, you always hear people talk about the tournament, so just to be in it, I know it's a big deal."

Sanders ranks as BC's third-leading scorer with 13 points per game, averages 4.5 rebounds, and has led the team in scoring nine times this season. He hit buzzer-beating shots in home victories over Virginia Tech (a putback) and Georgia Tech (a baseline jumper).

"Against Virginia Tech, it was just me going and doing what my coaches have been telling me from the beginning of the year, and that's just crashing the boards," Sanders said. "The Georgia Tech game was just me feeling comfortable and my team having confidence in me and going out there and proving I could hit a shot."

But it was Sanders's consistency his teammates most noticed.

"When he was a freshman, he would have some ups and downs," said senior guard Tyrese Rice. "One night he'd be great and the next night he'd be nonexistent.

"But this year, he's been very consistent and he's stepped it up on the defensive end. I mean, he's been doing a lot of great things - blocking shots, he's been doing it all. I think that all comes along with his maturation process."

The experiences have been many and varied this season. There was the stunning 85-78 upset of top-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill Jan. 4. Sanders had 22 points against the Tar Heels, an Atlantic Coast Conference foe that wound up as the top seed in the South Regional.

That euphoric triumph, however, was followed three days later by an 82-70 home-court loss to Harvard, which wound up finishing sixth in the Ivy League. Sanders scored just 7 against the Crimson.

"After the North Carolina win, people were saying we were still on a cloud," Sanders said. "So being on that cloud and going to the next game doesn't work. Just because you beat a team, that doesn't mean you're going to beat every team after that."

Nor does it mean that just because you've made game-winning shots, all the rest will fall in your favor. Sanders was given a stark reminder of that when his 3-point heave at the end of a 66-65 loss to Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament hit the rim and fell off.

In each instance, though - whether miss or make - Sanders has offered up a silent prayer of thanks for having been blessed with the chance to take the last shot.

"I don't think I was too mad about missing that shot, really," Sanders said. "I'm a very religious person and God is big in my life, so most of the shots I take, I've been grateful to make most of those last shots. So when I missed that one, it happened for a reason, so I said, 'Thank you,' for making me experience missing that shot and going through that. That's how I feel."

Although there were other viable options in Joe Trapani and Rice on the floor, Skinner wasn't displeased with the fact that Sanders was the one who wound up pulling the trigger against Duke.

"Oh, definitely he was one of the options," Skinner said. "I mean, it was definitely available to him, and that's what we try to do in that situation. We were trying to give the passer more than just one option, because I thought that was the easiest thing to do in those conditions. So when the ball ended up in his hands, I was OK with it."

So, too, was Rice.

"I just wanted the best available shot," Rice said. "I mean, obviously, I would've wanted to take the shot, but if I wasn't going to take it, I have no problems with Rakim taking it because he's made a couple already and I can't really be mad about who takes the shot or who doesn't. I'm just mad that the shot didn't fall."

Count it as another pang of growth.

Next season, with Rice departed, the Eagles will likely look to Sanders to be their go-to guy in such situations.

"Under pressure, he's proven himself to be one of our top options," Trapani said. "So, yeah, definitely, he's one of those guys, under pressure, who can hit that shot."

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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