If you're only 5-feet-8 and you want to play high school basketball, you'd better be able to dribble, jump and pass.You can still be valuable while letting the biggest players do the scoring.

But if you are 5-feet-8 and you can do all of those things plus consistently score with a deadly jump shot, you might just be your team's most valuable player.

That is exactly what Melissa Mahony was last year as a junior or O'Connell High School in Arlington. Now a senior, Mahony. 17, is having little difficulty outdoing last year's performance.

Mahony is averaging 29.5 points per game, the best in the area, and leads her team in assists with an average of five per game. Her best offensive weapon is an "in-your-face" foul line jump shot which she connects on often enough for a splendid 496 shooting percentage.

From the foul line, Mahony's percentage is over .700. As point guard for O'Connell, she's also responsible for bringing the bell up court and running the offense, which, naturally, revolves around her.

O'Connell coach Peggy Kirk says, "Her defense is excellent; not too far behind her offense. She's a complete player."

Several colleges, including the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Catholic University, have contacted Mahony. None has made a definite scholarship offer yet, but once the basketball season ends recruitment of Mahony is expected to begin in earnest.

And why not? Mahony's impressive season has earned her consideration for a spot on the prestigious Parade Magazine All-American team and she is an A-B student.

Mahony, who's modest to the point of sounding uncomfortable when talking about herself, says, "My family wonders where I got it (her talent). No one else in my family is really athletic. But I've always been competitive. Playing is natural to a point, and then you have to work at it."

Work began for Mahony when she played CYO basketball in the fifth grade for St. James Elementary School in Falls Church. She remembers being "very interested" even then and drilling willingly on fundamentals.

There was an outdoor court near my house and I played there every day," she says. "I was the only girl there, but that didn't bother me. I learned from playing with the boys."

Mahony freely admits that she learned and refined her jump shot in those playground games. "I copied others," she says. "If you can learn how to shoot while you're in the air, well, that's a big advantage."

She's learned so well that Kirk says. "Since her sophomore year, she's been either our number one or number two scorer. Last year, when we'd build up a lead, I'd take her out. But this year, I usually let her play so she can work on her game and get some exposure."

Mahony is the main reason O'Connell has a 11-3 record this season and is assured of its ninth consecutive winning season. The team also is taking aim at its third straight Virginia Catholic League championship, though one of its two losses was to its main challenger. St. Gertrude's of Richmond. O'Connell has played and defeated five Northern Virginia public school teams this year - West Springfield, Fort Hunt, Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield.

Despite Mahony's play and the team's success. O'Connell suffers from lack of fan support, as do most area girls teams.

"We only play five home games," says Kirk. "They're all after school and there's no admission charge. We get support from parents (of players) and their friends, but not much from the students."

The reason O'Connell plays so few home games, Kirk explains, is that other private schools don't travel because of finances. "So we travel and pay half the cost of the game officials"

A typical O'Connell trip for a Catholic League game at Richmond or Petersburg, according to Kirk, means boarding the team's school bus at O'Connell immediately after the game, going home and being at school for classes the next morning. Kirk teaches physical education, drives education and typing.

Mahony, who also is an outstanding field hockey and softball player, says only half of her hectic schedule gets her down.

"School gets tiresome sometimes," she says. "But the athletics don't."