Williams gets ball at crisis time

February 06, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

COLLEGE PARK -- Now it's a crisis.

Gary Williams didn't scream at his young team after its 83-71 loss to Georgia Tech yesterday, but suddenly he's facing the most significant test of his Maryland coaching career.

It's not a test of his coaching ability, or even his motivational ability. But with the Terps in a staggering free fall, Williams must somehow find a way to lift his team.

The scary part is, so much of this is out of his control. Joe Smith is getting open shots, but isn't hitting them. Maryland is playing hard, but now its opponents are prepared.

In eight days, the Terps have gone from 5-1 to 5-4 in the ACC. It was one thing when they lost at Duke and Virginia. But yesterday's game was a near-must, for now they return to the bTC road against soon-to-be-No. 1 North Carolina and rapidly improving Florida State.

An 8-8 conference record probably would be enough to put Maryland in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988, but right now that's in jeopardy. Assuming the Terps lose to North Carolina on Thursday, the Florida State game on Saturday might prove the difference between the NCAAs and the NIT.

That puts Williams in a bind. He can't read his young team the riot act. He can't lament that Smith and Keith Booth are hitting the freshman wall. And he can't sneak up on the ACC the second time around, because the league won't be fooled again.

Tech (12-8, 3-6) played yesterday's game in an absolute fury, sprinting to a 14-2 lead, then outscoring No. 21 Maryland, 18-6, to break open a game that was tied with 2:54 left.

It was just the opposite of the ACC season opener, when the Terps took a 17-2 lead and upset then-No. 12 Tech, 91-88.

Once they were the hunter, now they're the hunted.

The difference is measurable.

"We were upset that we let these freshmen and sophomores hand it to us," Tech sophomore guard Drew Barry said. "We wanted to steal one from them like they did from us. When they beat us at our place, everyone had the feeling that we couldn't wait to get back at them."

As if that wasn't enough, Williams was faced yesterday with Smith's continuing meltdown, a shoddy defensive start and a fourth straight game in which Maryland shot under 38 percent.

Smith missed 15 of 20 shots, committed eight turnovers and was held to only one basket in the second half -- a short jumper that tied the score, 63-63. Through 14 games, he was shooting 61.7 percent. Since then, he's 15-for-60 (25 percent).

Both Smith and Booth deny they are wearing down, but Smith weighs 220, and yesterday he was matched against 235-pound Ivano Newbill. Think of the top big men in the ACC -- Eric Montross, Sharone Wright, Cherokee Parks. They're all bigger and stronger.

"You get tired real quickly," Maryland sophomore Exree Hipp said, recalling his transition to college ball. "It's not like in high school, when you can take five days off, then come back and score 10 points. I know it's hard for them right now. It's something every freshman goes through."

Yet, the Smith slump wouldn't be as critical if Maryland was consistently applying its pressure defense and creating fast-break opportunities. Too often, the Terps must rely on their sporadic half-court offense. The shots are there. But they aren't making them.

Duane Simpkins is 6-for-23 in his last three games, and Travis Best rocked him for a game-high 23 points yesterday. Booth scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half, but got in foul trouble for the third straight game and had only one rebound in 33 minutes.

Johnny Rhodes? 6-for-16.

Hipp? 5-for-14.

"We're learning," Williams said. "You have to learn. You can't get down 14-2. Yeah, we make good comebacks. But what good does it do you? It's too hard to come back against a good team.

"You've got to make them [the players] understand how tough it is. Everything went good for a while. It's hard not to buy into that, when everyone is telling you that you're great.

"It was ridiculous what was written and said, but that's the way it goes. If anyone in the country had done what Joe did, it would be the same situation. That got the attention and publicity. But it's a lot harder now, especially for Joe."

So, what can Williams do?

He already has had one heart-to-heart with Smith, but short of administering tranquilizers, he can't force him to relax. As for the other Terps, they should now grasp that falling behind 9-1 and 14-2 in back-to-back games is no way to win in the ACC.

The league adjusted, now Maryland must readjust.

It's a crisis, all right.

Fair or not, the onus is on Williams.

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