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Seoul American coach Steve Boyd couldn’t have been more surprised when his star player, Nino Etienne, spoke up as the Falcons came to the bench for a timeout.

“They’re playing a box-and-one on me,” the senior center said.

Boyd was surprised the defense Osan American used to stop Etienne had fazed him, but he was equally stunned that Etienne spoke up at all.

“That’s more than he usually says during any game,” Boyd said. “He’s usually quiet, doesn’t say a lot, does his talking on the court.”

Etienne’s skills spoke loud and clear when he returned to the court.

On the ensuing play, he drove on defender A.J. Scott and scored.

Without a second wasted, Etienne and the Falcons turned around and formed a 1-3-1 half-court trap — a defense Boyd calls the “Black Diamond.”

Osan’s next five possessions each resulted in a steal and a transition basket by the Falcons, most of them by Etienne on slashes to the hoop or perimeter bombs, leading the Falcons to a 65-51 victory over Osan. Etienne’s final totals: 30 points, 16 rebounds.

Watching from courtside, Darryl Harmon, a member of the Osan Defenders base team and a 15-year veteran of interservice play, stood transfixed. “That kid is something special,” he said of Etienne.

“He does everything so well,” Boyd said. “I haven’t seen a phase of the game that he can’t excel in, if he puts his mind to it.”

Averaging 24.6 points, 14.1 rebounds, 4.7 steals and 3.6 assists per game, Etienne has propelled the Falcons to a Korea-best 17-5 record, a year after averaging 22 points and 12 rebounds for a Falcons squad that went 18-8.

Etienne, who transferred to Seoul American last season after living in Killeen, Texas, for eight years, has been referred to as a “man playing against boys,” who’s playing “twice as well as he did last year” by teammates, coaches and foes alike.

“He’s a kid I’ve not seen the likes of since I left Texas [in 1993],” Yokota coach Tim Pujol said. “He’s got good ball-handling skills, he’s a good outside shooter and a great rebounder.”

“He plays way above his head, as if to say, ‘I can destroy you; you can’t guard me,’” said Osan assistant coach Dietrick Glover.

If there’s a tried-and-true method for stopping him, nobody seems to have discovered it — though not for lack of trying.

“I guess you try to stay in front of him and hope you take a charge,” said Osan senior guard Mike Elkins, whose team has faced Etienne 10 times and lost all 10 meetings. “You have to play a box-and-one, and know where he is at all times while in a zone.”

Such talk might inflate the ego of some players, but Etienne says he’s never been the type to thump his chest and crow about his own performance. Listening to coaches and his own parents means more than the pats on the back and “you da man!” praise.

“Even if I score 30 points and have 10 rebounds, they tell me what I did wrong and what I can improve,” he said. “That’s what makes me better.”

While the individual numbers count for something, Etienne insists that he’s driven by one goal:

“My main thing is to win,” he said. “If I have no points but 20 assists, or if I score 30 points, I do what it takes to win.”

At 6 feet, 2 inches, Etienne was largely an inside player in his first season with the Falcons. He credits attending the University of Texas basketball camp last summer for his development into an all-around threat.

“Last year, I knew I was dominant inside, and I was more about wanting to score in every game,” he said. “This year, I’m more about getting my teammates involved, using myself to get other people open. I’ve worked on my defense. It gives my game more balance and makes me more dangerous.”

The same quiet off-court demeanor is present on the floor, where Etienne tries to lead by example.

“Most of the time, I’m not a vocal leader,” he said. If the game gets tough, he said, then he might tell teammates things, “I want the ball, this is what I want to do.”

When Etienne gets that way, it’s “give me the ball and I’ll take care of business,” Boyd said.

“Nino accepts the challenge. He wants the rock. There’s certainly nobody here who can play him one-on-one. If there is anybody in Japan or Okinawa, I’m sure we’ll see them,” he said, referring to next month’s Far East Class AA Tournament, hosted by Seoul American.

Yokota, one of the top teams in Japan, is already familiar with Etienne, having played against him in last year’s Far East Tournament on Guam and, more recently, Thanksgiving weekend in the season-opening Turkey Shootout at E.J. King School, Sasebo Naval Base.

“Is he a senior?” Yokota’s Pujol recalls asking after the Panthers were demolished 77-53 at Sasebo. Told that he was, Pujol replied with relief: “Thank God.”

“I don’t think there was a more dominating player” in the Far East Tournament last year, Pujol said of Etienne, who scored 25 of his 31 points in the second half of Seoul American’s 65-47 triumph.

“He can create off the dribble. He’s unstoppable on transition. If he has one or two people to beat, he’ll score or get fouled. He makes the difference between Seoul American having a good team and a great team.”

That Etienne already has a good team around him — explosive junior Chris Miller and promising freshman Jay Higgins, sophomore inside specialist Luis Feliciano and senior point Chris Glasser — makes him that much tougher to defend, Osan’s Elkins said.

“If it was just him and nobody else that was good, then we could stick with him and not worry about the others,” Elkins said.

It also gives Boyd as good a hope of winning a Far East title as he’s had in his 11 years of coaching in the Far East, eight with the Robert D. Edgren Eagles of Misawa Air Base in Japan, where the best he managed was a runner-up finish in 1998.

“I have more depth than I’ve ever had; that makes a difference,” said Boyd, 250-59 with five top-five Class AA finishes over his 11 seasons.

“I’ve never had a Nino, but the supporting cast, they realize their roles as we get closer and closer. There’s no doubt, this is the best squad I’ve ever had. I’m getting excited.”

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