Smith, young mates are showing strain

February 03, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- This was coming. No way Joe Smith was going to score 20 points against every Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. No way Maryland was going to play the entire season without losing two straight games.

Only an alarmist would fret over back-to-back road defeats at Duke and Virginia. The Terps are 5-3 halfway through the ACC season. Their losses are to No. 1 Duke, No. 2 North Carolina and Virginia, the conference's best defensive team.

Coach Gary Williams will take it, but suddenly his young team faces a critical test. Smith is showing the strain of the ludicrous expectations placed on him. His teammates are falling into foul trouble, playing sporadically on offense and generally coming back to earth.

The thing of it is, the Terps nearly beat Virginia last night before succumbing,73-66. They overcame double-digit deficits in both halves. They tied the score with 4:36 left. They played valiantly on a night Smith -- the remarkable Joe Smith! -- shot 3-for-19.

One possession told the entire story.

With 3:30 left, Maryland had a chance for its first lead. Duane Simpkins got the ball inside to Smith, just as Williams wanted. Smith attempted the same six-footer he has been knocking down all season. But on this night, nothing would fall.

It happens, even to the remarkable Joe Smith. This was a night he'll remember, from the five times his shot was blocked to the "Over-rated" chant that is fast becoming a mantra in the ACC. It xTC was coming, all of it. Now we'll see how Maryland responds.

Williams stood outside his locker room afterward, insisting, "I don't see this as a slide." He's right, but it could be the start of one, because the schedule offers no breaks. The Terps play host to Georgia Tech on Saturday, then play at North Carolina and Florida State.

They started 5-1 in the ACC, but it's not a stretch to imagine them 5-6. Last night's loss figures to drop them out of the Top 25. Smith might find it easier against a lax defensive team like Tech, but first he needs to relax. It's a struggle right now.

Smith couldn't recall a game in which he had so many shots blocked. Virginia centers Yuri Barnes and Chris Alexander hounded him all night, but there was no great mystery to the Cavaliers' defense. They didn't collapse around him. They didn't double-team.

"They weren't sagging on me or nothing," said Smith, who has shot 6-for-30 in his past two games and has scored only 35 points in his past three. "It was one-on-one in the post. A couple of times they had help, but all my shots, they just went in and out."

Virginia coach Jeff Jones acknowledged his team was "probably just fortunate." Junior Burrough, the game's leading scorer with 26 points, said, "Some of the shots he missed, don't give us too much credit, he just missed them.

"But," Burrough added, "we didn't underestimate him like a lot of teams by just playing our best big man on him. We made sure we had a body on him everywhere he went, contested every shot, and surrounded him whenever we could."

For one night anyway, it worked. But if Maryland is to be a `D serious ACC threat, it can't simply rely on Smith. Indeed, the Terps will only be as good as their other players. Smith will face intense pressure the rest of his college career -- both from opposing defenses, and the obsessive-compulsive basketball


He can handle it, but not by himself. Maryland shot 31.5 percent last night. Exree Hipp (17 points) Johnny Rhodes (11) and Keith Booth (nine) each had his moment, but at one point in the first half the Terps went more than 10 minutes with only one basket from a starter. If not for eight points by Mario Lucas, they might have been blown out right then.

"I don't think we're playing as well as we were earlier," said Simpkins, the point guard who had reached double figures in nine straight games before finishing with only seven last night. "We're breaking down. We're not grinding for 40 minutes."

For a team without much of a bench, foul trouble only makes things worse. Booth committed two fouls in a 12-second span in the first half, and Simpkins managed the same feat in 17 seconds. Williams had no choice but to pull back a full-court press that helped force Virginia into 23 turnovers.

Using a three-quarters press, Maryland still pulled within five points at halftime, but this is a team that plays with little margin for error. "We've done great so far, but we're not satisfied," Booth said. "We've got to get wins like this on the road."

They didn't last night, against a team that had beaten two other ranked opponents -- Minnesota and North Carolina -- at home.

"You've got to keep this in perspective," Williams said. It was a reasonable enough request, considering all that his team has accomplished, and all that is to come.

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