COLLEGE PARK -- The smile is back on Garfield Smith's face. The New York bravado is back in his game. And the University of Maryland basketball team is benefiting greatly from his rejuvenation.
Smith, who started well for the Terrapins this season before slumping badly, is one of the big reasons Maryland (12-7, 2-4) has won four in a row going into tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference game at No. 23 Georgia Tech (12-6, 4-3).
"He's moved it up a notch," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of Smith, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound junior forward from the Bronx.
After a stretch of six games in which he didn't score more than nine points or pull down more than six rebounds, Smith has averaged a little more than 15 points and eight rebounds during the winning streak.
He had 16 points and tied a career high of 12 rebounds -- not to mention making six straight free throws in the final 61 seconds -- to help Maryland erase a seven-point deficit in Tuesday night's 72-69 escape against American University.
"When I had that one good game [against Southern Cal the first week of the season], I thought, 'This is going to be easy,' " Smith said after practice Wednesday. "I was very wrong. The players kept getting better and better."
And Smith kept getting worse. After making nine of 10 shots in a 19-point, 12-rebound performance against Southern Cal, Smith sprained an ankle three days later at West Virginia. He lost his mobility, his jumper and eventually his confidence.
The low point came during a 32-point blowout defeat at North Carolina on Jan. 9. Smith was pulled after being beaten on a couple of offensive rebounds by Tar Heels forward George Lynch in the first three minutes. He went 0-for-4 and finished with one point in 18 minutes.
Just when it seemed as if Smith was a lost cause and when it appeared as if the Terps wouldn't win another game without injured point guard Walt Williams, there was that magical second-half comeback at South Florida two weeks ago.
Maryland, trailing by 17 at halftime, came back to beat the Bulls, 86-81. And Smith had his best game since Southern Cal, with 17 points and eight rebounds. What also helped Smith's confidence was hitting the game-clinching free throws with seven seconds left in Saturday's 104-100 upset of North Carolina State. With a near-sellout crowd at Cole Field House roaring and Smith grinning broadly, he put an end to the Wolfpack's comeback.
"I was saying to myself, 'This is what it's all about,' " said Smith, who, after transferring to Maryland from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College, is averaging 10.1 points and 5.1 rebounds. "There was a big crowd, 10 guys on the court playing some hardball. It was a good atmosphere."
Smith's turnaround has been no less impressive for Maryland than the steady leadership of sophomore point guard Kevin McLinton, the remarkable progress of senior center Cedric Lewis, the hot shooting of senior guard Matt Roe or the grinding defense of junior forward Vince Broadnax.
But considering how little Maryland was getting from Smith during his slump, it might be even more obvious how much the Terps need him at least to take his shot. It had gotten to the point that Walt Williams, before suffering a fractured left fibula Jan. 12 against Duke, was yelling at Smith in practice to shoot.
"He was passing up a lot of open jumpers," said Williams. "I told him I wasn't going to pass him the ball if he wasn't going to shoot. It had a domino effect. The less he shot, the more he lost his confidence. I'm happy to see it come back."
So, too, is Maryland. Four-wins-in-a-row happy.