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French's hard work makes game fun, boosts others PERSPIRATION & INSPIRATION

For Eunice French, 1991 marked an ending and a beginning. In February, her mother died of breast cancer -- four months before French's graduation from Crossland High School. In August, French packed and left her father and three brothers at their home in Temple Hills, Md., to begin her freshman year at UMBC.

"Eunice was tall but overweight," said Sue Furnary, who was UMBC's women's basketball coach for 13 years. "When I recruited her, I knew she was smart and good with her hands. I imagined how she would look down the road."

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Although her home was just 40 minutes away from the campus, French was miserable and homesick.

"My mother's death affected me my freshman year, but I was overwhelmed by starting college," said French, who had earned a basketball scholarship after playing the sport for only two years. "At times it hurt, but I knew I had to stay on top of things at school."

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In practice, she was dominated by juniors Angel Webb and Anne Wellington. At 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, French was not in full-court condition. She averaged 1.7 points and 1.9 rebounds in 28 games, playing 8 1/2 minutes a game.

"I hated freshman year; it was a waste," said French, a center. "I wasn't in shape, and I didn't know what it took to play on this level. I didn't want to slide by because I had a scholarship. Every year, I wanted to come back and be better."

Now, French is a senior and a solid 168 pounds. She runs the court with authority. Her moves are almost as versatile as her hairstyles. Whether she wears Senegalese twisted braids or a fluffy ponytail, whether she's shooting her short, sweet baseline jumper or taking it strong to the basket, French is enjoying this season.

"Playing with the likes of Webb and Wellington made me better," said French. "Now, practice is fun, and I look at it in a different light."

"I have been coaching for 16 years, and Eunice is the hardest-working player I ever coached," said second-year Retrievers coach Kathy Solano, who was head coach at Manhattan for nine years before coming to UMBC. "The conditioning and training she did in the off-season is due to her work ethic and living up to her expectations."

French leads the Big South with 11.9 rebounds a game, good enough to rank 11th in the nation. She's leading her team (9-7, 5-2) in scoring with 14.9 points a game, and as captain, she offers inspiration not only to her teammates, but to others.

"God has blessed Eunice," said her roommate, Sandi Walker. "She is very strong, and when we're down, we can see her strength -- you can see how she has grown."

Walker met French at freshman orientation. "She's got a lot of goals, and she's completed them. She gives me inspiration," Walker said.

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Twice a week, French, whose major is psychology, interns at a nursing home. She would like to be a social worker. She handles the cases of seven of the residents who are mentally ill or physically disabled. Her duties include helping them with rooming problems, clothing needs and taking them shopping. She's not licensed to evaluate behavior, but she offers moral support.

"They [the patients] don't look to me as a typical social worker," she said. "They think I'm a supportive friend who will always be there for them."

She is reliable on the court as well.

French has become one of the most powerful forwards in the Big South. In 12 of the Retrievers' 16 games, French has been in double figures in rebounding and scoring. She has played all 40 minutes in eight games. French scored career highs of 28 points in each of UMBC's conference wins over UNC-Asheville and Winthrop last week, becoming Big South Player of the Week.

Bernard French, who is retired and an active church member, said when Eunice comes home, he and his three sons (one is a musician, another works in a law firm and the youngest will play football for Rutgers next season) treat her like a queen.

"I think her mother's death was probably a springboard for what she experiences now," Bernard French said. "I mean . . . she's my heart."


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