With Terps' Booth, seeing is believing

January 12, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- The box scores are lying about Keith Booth. He is averaging 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists, not bad for a freshman. But those numbers don't paint an accurate picture of Booth's essential contribution to Maryland's surprising season.

You have to see him play to understand. You have to keep your eyes on him, particularly when he doesn't have the ball, to understand how, along with fellow freshman Joe Smith, he is the foundation of a young Terps team that raised its record to 9-3 by beating Florida State last night.

You have to see him, all 6 feet 5 of him, banging away at power forward against players 4 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier, sacrificing his body, surviving on guts and wiles, because no one else on the team could do it.

You have to see him catch the ball in the lane, turn and take it straight to the basket, no bluff, no bluster, all confidence, all attitude -- showing everyone how to win, by going right to the hole.

You have to see him bringing the ball up against pressure as confidently as ever, just like his old days in the backcourt at Dunbar. You have to see him slithering back and forth along the baseline, finding the seams in the defense, setting up plays for Smith. You have to see him playing defense, helping out, knowing when to stick in a conniving hand.

If you keep watching him, you'll soon fathom what most Terps fans already know: On a young team still in development, a team that desperately needed someone to play older than his years, Booth's broad shoulders are the difference.

Sure, Joe Smith is the franchise, as he proved again last night with 23 points, 20 rebounds and six blocks. (Gracious!) But Smith would be all alone inside -- and the Terps would have about six losses -- if Booth wasn't there to fight the good fight alongside Smith.

"Keith gives Joe someone to go to war with," Maryland coach Gary Williams said after last night's 80-74 win. "You don't win games without guys like that. It's as simple as that."

L Especially since the Terps have no one else who could do it.

In Saturday's bellwether loss to North Carolina, Booth spent the day banging up against twin 7-footers Eric Montross and Kevin Salvadori. "Anyone who saw the game knew there were four men the floor," Williams said. "There was Joe. And the two big guys from Carolina. And Keith was right there with them."

His assignment last night was 245-pound Maurice Robinson. Again, the box score lied. Smith and Exree Hipp combined for 46 points and dominated the post-game talk. Booth had nine points and six rebounds before fouling out. But the Terps might have lost without him. Without his strength, toughness and confidence inside.

"I'll go home tonight and look at the film and it will stand out immediately, like it always does," Williams said. "What he is doing is incredible. He's just a freshman, but he's making us a much tougher team. It just changes things. His impact is that big. Last year we got beat to loose balls and rebounds. With Keith, we're getting them this year."

Booth shrugs at the suggestion that he is helping by playing bigger than his size. That's old news to him.

"It's just part of being a ballplayer the way I learned it," he said. "I've been an aggressive player for as long as I can remember. Taking it to the hole, mixing it up, that's how you win. I've already fouled out of something like four games here. That's what I'm about."

He is the definitive city player. You can practically smell the blacktop simmering in the summer heat when he gets the ball at the top of the key. There isn't an ounce of fat in his game. His hand is in your face. His body is bumping against yours. He heads for the basket in straight lines.

There's no other way to put it: He knows how to play ball the right way.

"In summer leagues and rec leagues around Baltimore I was always playing against bigger and older guys," Booth said. "You have to be aggressive or you're out of there. I learned how to use my quickness inside."

In Williams' long-range blueprint, Booth should have it easier. The presence of another big man would allow him to become the small forward or big guard, and use his strength to create an advantage there. Of course, that means Williams has to recruit another big man. And Booth has to improve his outside shot. "He's working hard at it, but he'd be the first to say it could get better," Williams said.

No matter where he plays, though, he'll always wind up at the front of the fight, the point, around the basket, around the loose balls. Some players just can't help it.

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