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Marshall focused on finish

The "other" senior promised himself that no matter what happened in his final year at Boston College, he would finish strong.

Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? Sean Marshall has always understood his place in the pecking order. Last season, this was Craig Smith's team, with Jared Dudley beginning in a strong supporting role but ultimately winding up beside Smith as more than his trusty sidekick. He was his equal.

Marshall, who came to The Heights in the fall of 2003 and became an immediate fixture in the starting lineup, was content to play the role of the complementary piece, a double-figure scorer in the backcourt who was happy to let Smith and Dudley shine.

He had his moments, of course. It was his 3-point play that helped BC tip North Carolina State in double overtime last season.

Against Wake Forest Jan. 9, Marshall submitted this gem of a line: 27 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Oh, and by the way: 0 turnovers.

Two weeks later, in a tight game against Florida State, Marshall's 3-point buzzer-beater gave BC a 85-82 win.

He has been encouraged by his play, which has included a career-high 14.8 points a game, but has fretted over a maddening flaw that dogged him through his first three seasons: his tendency to wilt down the stretch of the college season.

"I've always believed in my physical ability," he said, "but I've had this problem where I've let down mentally. I didn't want that to happen again. I've grown a lot as a person. I've tried to really concentrate on maintaining my consistency."

It hasn't hurt to have the poster boy for those qualities suiting up with him every day since both of them arrived on the BC campus.

"I've never met anyone as focused as Jared," Marshall said. "He's all about thinking the game through. I've learned so much from him. He's convinced me that together we can share some of that knowledge with the younger guys we have on this team."

Together, the seniors have led the team in scoring in 17 of 24 games, and in rebounding 18 of 24. Together, they held together a young team that could have easily been devastated by the dismissal of two key players, Sean Williams and Akida McLain, but instead have surged into first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"That goes back to focus," Marshall explained. "If we maintained our focus, then the younger guys would follow our lead."

A cadre of underclassmen took the court with Marshall and Dudley last night at Conte Forum against a Duke team in a bona fide slump. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's boys had lost four in a row and limped in last night with an uncharacteristic 5-6 conference record. They are the first Duke team in more than a decade not to be ranked, while, in a notable reversal of fortune, BC has scratched its way back into the Top 25 for the first time in three months.

Last night's game was the beginning of a pivotal week for the Eagles, who will host North Carolina Saturday, then travel to Virginia Tech (which upset the Tar Heels Tuesday) next Wednesday. Dudley has been saying all along it's his belief that 10 conference wins will clinch an NCAA bid for his team. BC went into last night's game with a 9-2 mark in the ACC.

In fact, it's the Blue Devils who could well be sweating out their postseason chances if they continue to their slide.

So, if we told you before the season that Duke would come to The Heights below BC in the ACC standings, as well as in the national rankings, what would you have said?

"I would have told you that you were crazy," Marshall admitted. "Because it's Duke. I don't care what their record says. You know they are going to be tough.

"As for us, we don't ever get the respect we deserve. Just because we're ahead of them in the standings, believe me, we know better than to look down on them. We know better than to look down on anybody."

Marshall started for the 125th consecutive time last night, a remarkable streak that keeps him on course to break Smith's school record of 127. Dudley would have shared the record with him, but he missed three games earlier this season with a sore left foot.

"I really don't think about that much," Marshall said. "And I definitely don't talk about it. I don't want to wish bad luck on myself."

The Marshall Plan has shown no indications of faltering. Not this season. Not when the senior is down to his final shot of proving he is a true leader.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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