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UMBC's Rodney Elliott has no problem making his own name

The game was over for everyone, except Rodney Elliott Jr.

His team down by 20 points with time quickly evaporating, Elliott Jr. came off the bench determined. He brought the crowd to its feet, sinking eight consecutive 3-pointers and sending his team home with an improbable victory, much the same way his father used to do for Gary Williams at Maryland in the late 1990s.

Except this game wasn't played in College Park. It was in 2002 at a youth development center in East Baltimore, and Elliott Jr. was just 7 years old.

"I just started crying on the bench for no reason," Elliott Jr. recalled. "I don't know why I was crying. And then my dad came over. It was a special moment, because it really showed that I had the same love for the game that my father had."

The ability to have the ball in his hands and take the big shots is part of the reason the freshman point guard wound up at UMBC, and his passion for the game is among the reasons his coach feels he could be crucial to turning athe Retrievers' program around.

Elliott Jr. all-but came out of the womb living and breathing basketball. The first time he left his house after he was born, he was taken to Cole Field House to watch Rodney Elliott Sr. score six points and pull down eight rebounds for the Terps against Howard.

At 4 , Elliott Jr. played in his first organized basketball league at City Springs Elementary School. That's when his father went to work. During the summers when he wasn't playing professionally in Europe, ElliottSr. began educating his only child in the family business.

"When he was able to bounce the ball and get it to the rim, around then is when I started to work with him," Elliott Sr.said. "Every morning we'd get up and go to the gym. In the afternoon, we'd go to the gym. In the evening, we'd go to the summer-league games. He was just immersed and around the game of basketball all the time."

Growing up, all Elliott Jr. wanted to do was live up to his father's name.

He spent his spring breaks traveling to Europe to watch Elliott Sr. play. He spent most of his high school years hearing about his dad's pedigree, but without him watching from the sidelines.

With his father overseas, Elliott Jr. said, he was able to develop on his own and made it a point to show people he had inherited his dad's skill-set.

"I wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps," Elliott Jr. said. "I wanted to go to Maryland and pursue the name that he had, be the guy everybody looked up to around the city."

Elliott Jr. starred for John Carroll, scoring 1,116 career points and helping lead the Patriots to consecutive Baltimore Catholic League championships.

But unlike his father — who starred at Dunbar — he didn't get recruiting letters along with the accolades. Elliott Jr. grew to be only 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, eight inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than his father.

The Terps never came calling. His name was never mentioned among the nation's top recruits. Several mid-major programs showed interest in Elliott Jr., but he came away with only two Division I offers. UMBC came first, then High Point.

Ultimately, Elliott Jr. decided to stay home, a decision second-year Retrievers coach Aki Thomas said has the potential to alter the future of the program.

"He wanted to take the big shot at the end of the game," Thomas said. "That was something I saw in him [while recruiting], and there were a couple of games I went to when he made some, and others when he didn't make some. But he wanted to take the big shot."

Big shots have become a specialty for Elliott in his first season at UMBC.

In his second game as a Retriever, against Division III Eastern University, Elliott Jr. scored 19 points and sank a game-tying 3-point shot with 2.4 seconds to play, sparing his team an embarrassing early-season loss.

He's just the second player in UMBC's history as a Division I program to score 400 points with 100 assists and 100 rebounds in a season, and he's on track to become the first freshman to lead the Retrievers in scoring since 1998.

Averaging 14.9 points per game, Elliott is the fourth-leading scorer in the league heading into this week's America East tournament, and he has been named conference rookie of the week five times.

Having been overlooked by the nation's top programs, Elliott Jr. said he came to Catonsville intending to rewrite the Retrievers' record book.

"Coming in, I had a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I wanted to prove a point to other schools, showing them they missed out on something. But [UMBC] is still a great opportunity. My dad told me coming in, 'Here you want to break records. You want to be one of the best players here.'"

UMBC has meddled at toward the bottom of the America East standings, finishing the regular season with a 5-11 conference mark and a 9-20 overall record. But with only three seniors slated for graduation and five freshmen on the roster, Elliott Jr. feels the program could turn itself around sooner than many are expecting.

"We're still rebuilding, but we'll be where we need to be I believe next year," he said. "In the years coming, we believe we will be the best team in the America East. We got what it takes, we just need to keep rebuilding and growing as a team."

The Retrievers currently have three incoming recruits, each of whom hail from in-state. The class is headlined by Archbishop Spalding point-guard Jourdan Grant, who is ranked the No. 37 prospect in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area by DMVElite.com.

For UMBC to be competitive, Thomas said, it's imperative that the Retrievers win the recruiting battle in Baltimore.

"We have to keep good players home," Thomas said. "I think we have to recruit inside out. We have to be experts and do a really good job recruiting the players to want to be a part of their community and do well here the best that we can. Especially the good ones."

Elliott Jr. is among "the good ones," and with three years remaining, he could have more of an impact for UMBC than his father ever did at Maryland.

Elliott Sr. has no problem with that.

Now retired and coaching at Mount Zion Prep, Elliott Sr., 37, has yet to lose to his son in a one-on-one game. One day, he's hoping he will.

"If he shoots for the moon and misses, at least he's among the stars," the father said. "I think he is better than me when I was his age. If he wants to be better than me, that's icing on the cake."

ptierney@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Paul_Tierney3

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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