COLLEGE PARK -- After playing the role of David with surprising success recently, the University of Maryland basketball team nearly failed as Goliath last night at Cole Field House.
Falling behind American University by seven points twice in the second half, then tying the game both times, the Terrapins squeaked by the Eagles, 72-69, before 6,233.
Six free throws by junior forward Garfield Smith in the final 61 seconds, sandwiched around a blocked shot by senior center Cedric Lewis, lifted Maryland (12-7) to an unexpectedly narrow victory.
"We learned a lesson tonight," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, as relieved by his team's escape as by its comeback. "We know now that any one on our schedule can play and we have to come and out play each night."
The Terps, coming off Saturday's upset of North Carolina State, watched American (8-9) build a 38-36 halftime lead and go up, 58-51, with a little less than 10 minutes left in the game.
But after tying the game at 58 on a three-point play by Smith, Maryland watched as the Eagles soared behind the outside shooting of sophomore center Craig Sedmak and senior guard Brock Wortman, who would lead AU with 23 points.
"I think they were tired of hearing about Maryland, and about the ACC," said sophomore guard Kevin McLinton, who had been badly outplayed by Wortman. "Any time you play a bigger team in the same city, it gets you fired up."
L Said Williams, "We were the hunted, rather than the hunter."
What kept the Terps in the hunt were foul troubles on AU's top three scorers. First Sedmak fouled out with 3:56 to go, and the Eagles ahead by seven. Then, Wortman took a seat with 1:01 left. By the time Brian Gilgeous (21 points) fouled out with 17 seconds left, it was all but over.
Wortman's foul, after a steal by McLinton, sent Maryland reserve guard Matthew Downing to the floor, rolling over his already injured right shoulder. With Downing unable to shoot, Williams inserted Smith, whose two free throws nailed down the victory over N.C. State.
"If you are looking for big plays, I think Brock fouling out and McLinton coming up with that steal were the two big ones," said first-year American coach Chris Knoche, a former point guard for Gary Williams.
Asked if Downing's injury was fortuitous, Williams cracked a thin smile. "He was injured," said Williams. "But Garfield had a lot of confidence after making those shots Saturday. He made some big ones tonight."
Smith's free throws gave Maryland a 68-67 lead, putting the Terps ahead for the first time in the final 12 minutes of the game. The second pair, after Lewis blocked a shot by reserve center Ron Davenport in the lane, gave Maryland a 70-67 lead with 17 seconds left.
After a missed three-point try by AU backup guard Donald Grant with eight seconds left, Smith was fouled and hit two more free throws to seal Maryland's fourth straight victory.
I'm working hard on my free throws," said Smith, who hit eight of nine from the line and finished with 16 points, to go along with a career-tying 12 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals. "I have a lot of confidence in that right now, and Saturday helped me a lot."
While the free throws against the Wolfpack helped Smith, Maryland's recent comeback from a 17-point deficit at South Florida gave the Terps a collective confidence to make up last night's deficit.
"Any time you can do that, it helps build confidence," said senior guard Matt Roe, who led four Maryland players in double figures with 17 points. "It was tough, but I don't think we ever thought we were out of it."
NOTES: Cedric Lewis had six blocks last night, along with 15 points, raising his season total for rejections to 105, eight shy of his brother Derrick's school record. . . . Maryland plays at Georgia Tech Friday night.