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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

By Bethany Bradsher

The old Sam Hinnant is back

Sophomore injury behind him, junior guard returns to form

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

When Sam Hinnant came to East Carolina for his first recruiting visit, Coach Mack McCarthy was tapped to drive him back to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia.

When they reached a tiny Exxon station near the gates of the school, McCarthy had to stop so that Hinnant could duck inside and change into his uniform — no student was permitted on campus in civilian clothes.

But in the three years since Hinnant became a Pirate, he hasn’t been someone who’s known for making changes. In fact, both player and coach have to ponder when asked how Hinnant’s role or his contribution look different than they did when he was a freshman.

“He played like a veteran guy as a freshman,” McCarthy said. “He was very mature, very consistent and just was solid. That’s probably the word I think of most of the time when I think about Sam, he’s someone you can count on every single day for a good effort and a good attitude.”

College coaches know that Fork Union products are well coached, and McCarthy could see that Hinnant had sound fundamentals, he said. But before Hinnant put on his first Pirates jersey, McCarthy couldn’t pinpoint his true potential.

Tom Hammonds’ ankle helped answer that question, when a slight injury before a 2005 scrimmage led then-coach Ricky Stokes and McCarthy to put Hinnant into the lineup. It was a one-time call that soon became a habit.

“He never came out of the lineup,” McCarthy said. “He was just so solid the rest of the year.”

That rookie season yielded the kind of stats that make coaches feel like recruiting geniuses: 10.2 points per game, a team-high 50 three-point shots, a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman team.

Then a sophomore hurdle rose up before Hinnant. He struggled some early with a nagging injury, then broke his leg just before the Conference USA opener. He played in just 14 games and averaged 4.8 points per game.

“Last year, I think it was clear that this team missed him,” McCarthy said.

If there was any doubt that Hinnant was back as a junior, the word came out loud and clear in the Dec. 8 game against North Carolina State, when Hinnant seemingly couldn’t miss and led his team to a 75-69 victory. He finished that emotion-charged win with a career-high 30 points, including the go-ahead three-pointer with 2:09 left in the game.

In the first 13 games of this season, Hinnant averaged nearly 12 points a game and shot close to 42 percent from the three-point line, even if few early games had the spark of the Wolfpack win.

That’s one of the areas, noted McCarthy, in which he would like to help Hinnant improve — aligning his work ethic with the results in the stats column.

“He is consistent in his effort, he’s consistent in his execution, but in terms of productivity I think he could be a little more consistent,” McCarthy said.

Hinnant can’t quite explain why, on nights like the Wolfpack victory, it seems like nothing can get between him and the basket, but in other important games the shooting touch starts out lukewarm and cools off from there. Certainly, a large part of scoring momentum originates above the shoulders, he said.

“Every player doesn’t have a game like that every night, but you never know, it could be your night or it could be somebody else’s night,” Hinnant said.

“Luckily that was my night. There are a lot of mental things that go with that. Once you hit a couple in a row, it’s to the point where you think you’re going to make every shot after that.”

When Hinnant looks back over his college career so far, the greatest shift has been in his drive to be a leader. He has taken younger players like Jontae Sherrod under his wing, and he has transferred his solid, consistent persona on the court to an upperclassmen who can relish East Carolina's challenge tonight in a road contest against a heavily-favored Memphis team, regardless of the outcome.

“Everybody should be psyched up to play the number two team in the country,” he said. “There’s probably going to be a big atmosphere there. It’s going to be fun.”

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01/09/2008 03:20:34 AM

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