It did not take long for Steve Blake to make a first impression on his collegiate teammates.

Maryland's point guard had not even started his college career when he and Juan Dixon got into a few preseason tussles before Blake's freshman year.

"He had been here a couple years and I was the brand new face trying to come in here and do something," Blake said. "It got competitive. We had heated battles. That's why we got into it."

The same could be said of this past summer, when Blake, a rising senior, and incoming freshman John Gilchrist went head-to-head, the veteran wanting to show the newcomer a thing or two.

Blake also has asserted himself around the ACC. Last season he and North Carolina State swingman Julius Hodge had a few well-publicized run-ins. And this season in a loss at Wake Forest, Blake was among a handful of players pushing and yelling at each other at game's end.

"I'm not going to let anyone get the best of me, I guess you could say," Blake said. "If they're going to come at me hard, I'm going to come twice as hard right back. That's just the way it is. I guess some people can't handle it."

There are better passers and there are fancier ballhandlers. There are more accurate shooters. Singularly, none of Blake's skills jump off the chart. But Blake, who is 6 feet 3 and 172 pounds, does many things well, and his fierce nature sets him apart.

"Maybe his most outstanding attribute is he is a competitive" player, said one NBA executive who predicted Blake could be selected late in the first round or in the second round of this summer's NBA draft. "He doesn't back down. He competes every night. . . . Let me tell you something, that is a big attribute.

"There are faster guys, bigger guys, stronger guys. Somehow with Blake, whatever he is, he is a little bit more than the sum of the parts. So you have to attribute that to the intangibles. You've got to recognize there are some guys who just out-compete others."

Plenty of colleges four years ago looked past Blake, and some NBA teams are expected to do so in June. But at Maryland, he has been the one common denominator on the court between consecutive Final Fours, a national championship last March and a tight race for the ACC title this season.

Tonight against Clemson, Blake will be one of five Terrapins playing in his final home game. He will be honored in a pregame ceremony, which will include his jersey joining 14 others hanging from Comcast Center's rafters.

No one has started or played more minutes in more victories than Blake, who tonight will make his school-record 129th career start. With Blake in the lineup, Maryland is 99-32.

"You judge a point guard in terms of wins first, because a lot of times they're not thinking about scoring like a lot of positions on the court are," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "And then you look at his numbers all around. . . . He's right up there. I don't think any point guard that ever played here should be ranked higher than Steve Blake because of what he did here for Maryland. . . . You couldn't get a better point guard in college than Steve Blake."

Last week in the Terrapins' 75-70 loss at Duke, Williams said he turned to Blake when Duke forward Dahntay Jones started getting hot. Forget the fact that Jones was three inches and 40 pounds heavier, Williams believed Blake's grit and determination could get the job done.

"He doesn't get the credit for being the defensive player he is," Williams said. "He plays great position defense."

In the past, defense and ball distribution were Blake's primary responsibilities. He led the ACC in assists the past two seasons and broke the school record for career assists last February. But after losing the other four starters off last season's national championship team, Blake has had to fill different roles this season. Instead of knowing where and when to get the ball to reliable scorers such as Dixon and Lonny Baxter, Blake has had to learn other players' tendencies and habits.

And in addition to occasionally directing traffic on the court and telling teammates where to go, Blake has been more assertive, looking for his jump shot and driving to the basket. Blake's scoring is up to 12.4 points per game, a 70-percent increase over his career average, and though his assist average has dipped, he still leads the ACC at seven per game.

"I think [the offensive change] has been the biggest development in his game in his four years," Williams said. "He started out really not looking for his shot, then he would take his shot if it was there. Now, he creates his shot. He's always been the passer or ballhandler, he could always do that. Now, his shot has gotten better."

On Saturday against North Carolina, Blake made a three-pointer, a steal and a bank shot to break open what had been a close game. When it was over, the Terrapins had sent the Tar Heels to their worst loss in 53 years.

"The more you watch Steve Blake, the more you appreciate Steve Blake," said North Carolina Coach Matt Doherty. "The toughest thing in evaluating players is evaluating a young man's mind and heart, and I think Steve Blake has a good basketball mind and a good heart."

That mind for basketball was not always bound for College Park. If things had worked out differently, Blake might have ended up at North Carolina State, or maybe Florida. During his first two years of high school, Blake was coached by Gabe Corchiani, whose son, Chris, was a standout point guard for N.C. State from 1987 to '91. Everything was pointing to Blake playing for the Wolfpack until the school suddenly stopped recruiting him.

"One of their [assistant] coaches came down to see one of my practices," Blake said. ". . . After that practice, they didn't want to offer [a scholarship] to me. They didn't think I was good enough, I guess."

Fine, no problem, Blake said in his typically calm demeanor.

"Someone doesn't want me, I've got plenty of other schools that do," he said.

Next on the list was Florida, where Blake hoped to reunite with some of his high school teammates and play for Coach Billy Donovan. Going to games in Gainesville also would have made things easier for Blake's father, Richard, who does not fly and drives to almost every Maryland game from the family's Miami Lakes, Fla., home.

But the Gators signed another point guard, Brett Nelson. That left Syracuse and Maryland as the top suitors vying for Blake, with the Terrapins particularly desperate for a point guard.

With playing time readily available, Blake chose Maryland. The rest is in the record books. Barring injury, Blake will finish his career with the most minutes played in school history. He is 10th in NCAA history in assists and needs 81 to become the fourth player to reach 1,000.

As for a possible NBA career, Blake is hopeful. He thinks he can mature physically and put about 20 pounds on his slender frame. That might help him endure the 82-game regular season and give him the strength he feels he needs.

"I think about it as in I hope I can go there," Blake said. "I don't think about it as I've got to do this on the court because that will get me there. I feel if we win, people will notice and the opportunity will be there for me."

Terrapins Notes: School officials are urging fans attending tonight's game to expect heavy traffic and allow extra time to get to the arena. . . . Maryland recruits Hassan Fofana, Ekene Ibekwe, Will Bowers and D.J. Strawberry have committed to play in the Charm City Challenge high school all-star game on April 13 at the Towson Center in Baltimore.

Steve Blake: "If [opponents are] going to come at me hard, I'm going to come twice as hard right back."Blake, driving on Duke's Dahntay Jones, will be one of five Terps playing home finale tonight.