College Hoops: Ronnie Gallagher column: Salisbury connection plays tonight on ESPN for BC

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 6, 2006

I didn’t cover Salisbury’s game with East Davidson back in 2003 when Shamari Spears went on an offensive rampage against East Davidson, scoring 55 points.

I covered the following game at West Stokes when he was “held” to 35.

During the first half of that game, Spears rose over three of the Wildcats and threw down a monstrous tomahawk slam.

I remember thinking, “This kid needs some competition — and he ain’t gonna get it in the Central Carolina Conference.”

Spears was a 6-foot-4 hulk of a sophomore at the time. And to find that competition, he left us for Blair Academy in New Jersey, a basketball factory that has produced Luol Deng and Charlie Villanueva.

Spears proved he could play on that level as well, becoming Blair’s second all-time leading scorer behind Deng.

Tonight at 7 on ESPN, we’ll get to see Spears — still a hulk, but two inches taller — on the national stage. The Boston College freshman and the Eagles play host to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Will Spears meet this challenge?

“Shamari Spears will be a success,” BC’s senior leader Jared Dudley told the Post recently. “He will be first-team on the All-ACC Rookie team. He’ll be one of the top offensive rebounders in the conference.”

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While most fans in North Carolina wait for the 9 p.m. contest in Chapel Hill between the No. 7-ranked Tar Heels and No. 3 Ohio State, Boston College’s Salisbury connection will have local fans glued to their seats beforehand.

Not only is Spears expected to start, but so is sophomore guard Tyrese Rice, who was born here before his family moved to Virginia. There, he put together a record-breaking high school career.

Boston College coach Al Skinner think it’s neat having two kids from the same Tobacco Road city on his team. He knows the Eagles have now scratched the surface in the South.

“We’ve always recruited nationally,” Skinner pointed out. “But there were areas — North Carolina and Georgia — that we weren’t able to recruit. Now, people want to at least listen. Before, we couldn’t even get them to take a phone call.”

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Rice had a lot to do with the recruitment of Spears. Both love to tell stories of playing together as little tykes (was Spears ever a little tyke?) at Halls Gym.

Rice’s mother, Allison, was a star Salisbury Hornet two decades ago. His grandparents still live on South Church Street.

Having each other’s company means everything to Spears as he gets acclimated to a large city, cold weather, and fans who care more about pro sports.

“From a social standpoint, that helps,” Skinner said. “Boston is a difficult environment. You’re on the highest level athletically and academically. You’re in a major city where a lot is going on. It’s a pro town and you can easily get distracted.

“To navigate all that, it takes a lot of discipline. So it’s comforting that they’re friends. ”

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While Spears learns to bang with the stars of the ACC, Rice may be the key to the Eagles’ fortunes.

Dudley is a scoring forward. Sean Williams is a shot blocker. Sean Marshall is a stable 2-guard.

But Rice, who came off the bench last season to burn opponents with his long-range, lefty jumpers, needs to tone it down and take over at point guard for graduated Louis Hinnant.

“Tyrese is a different type player than Louis,” Skinner said. “We’ll have to adjust. He’s got to go out and play 35 minutes for us.

“If Tyrese has a solid year, we’ll be competitive. If he doesn’t we’re going to struggle.”

Dudley has no concern about Rice, pointing to last year when Rice was a freshman.

“Before you guys got to see him on TV, we went to Las Vegas and Tyrese was scoring 20 points a game,” Dudley remembered. “It was 3-pointers and floaters. I told him, ‘If you can do that here, you can do that in any game.’ ”

Rice had his best outings at UNC and Wake Forest. He averaged 9.3 points for the season and became the fourth straight Eagle to make

All-Rookie, following Dudley, Williams and Craig Smith.

“From the first time I saw Tyrese, I knew he’d be successful,” said Marshall.

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Boston College is hoping Spears makes it five superb diaper dandies in a row. And he has the biggest task of all, replacing the 6-8 Smith, now a Minnesota Timberwolves rookie.

“He has the opportunity to play,” Dudley said. “There’s a forward spot open. I see Shamari being a force.”

Shamari Spears a force?

That’s the same thing we were saying three seasons ago. Only then, it was against a bunch of kids. Now, he’ll get all the competition he wants, and tonight, we’ll get to watch his biggest test yet on the biggest stage.

If the competition under the boards gets a bit frustrating against the rugged Big Ten Spartans, Spears can just remember what worked back during his Halls Gym days:

Throw it out to Tyrese for a three.

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Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com.

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