Another appraisal of Smith's value

January 08, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There is a lot of debate about what the Maryland Terrapins can and can't do in their season of emergence as a Top 10 team. Can they hang with Duke and North Carolina in the ACC? Can they develop enough of a bench and shoot well enough from the outside to make more noise in the NCAA tournament than they did a year ago?

For them, this is very much a season of discovery. But the lesson they learned last night at the Smith Center was a lesson that didn't need discovering, a lesson that was obvious from the first dribble of Midnight Madness almost three months ago: Without Franchise Sophomore Joe Smith, the Terps are a far less dangerous mark.

No Joe, no go.

Smith was in foul trouble and on the bench for exactly half of last night's game against North Carolina. Beating the Heels on their home court was going to be hard enough for the Terps with Smith having his usual big game. But with him having one of his quietest games, the Terps had too much ground to make up against a smart, balanced Carolina team and a noisy sellout crowd that included Michael Jordan.

"I couldn't play the aggressive way I usually play," Smith said. "I normally play smarter than I did tonight."

He wound up with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but the totals were misleading. He wasn't on the floor when the Terps needed him.

"We missed him defensively most of all," Terps coach Gary Williams said after Carolina's 100-90 win.

Not that the Terps didn't fight hard and come away with their own set of feel-good vibes. If Johnny Rhodes had made a three-pointer from the right wing with six minutes left, they would have been down by just one point, a remarkable accomplishment considering that Smith's frequent absence had them out of sync and scrambling all night.

This was a night when the Terps hung tough because Wayne Bristol hit big shots and freshman Rodney Elliott contributed, a night when Johnny Rhodes stepped up his offense and the Terps discovered that North Carolina was no bigger, no quicker and no deeper than they were. The Tar Heels shot 50 of the game's 75 free throws, which won't happen when the teams meet again next month at Cole Field House.

"Our bench did a real good job for us, which is encouraging for us as far as the rest of the season," Rhodes said.

But in the end, for the Terps, matching baskets with the Heels proved too much of a strain without the usual push from Smith in the second half. Missing him in the middle was a sensation to which the Terps weren't at all accustomed -- Smith has rarely been in foul trouble -- and one they hope won't often be repeated.

What kind of havoc did it wreak? Well, midway through the second half, when the Terps were still close, they had Keith Booth guarding Serge Zwicker and giving up eight inches in the post, and Elliott, an untested freshman, guarding Rasheed Wallace. Then Booth got into foul trouble and joined Smith on the bench. Goodbye.

It had been 10 years since the Terps and Heels played when both teams were ranked in the Top 10, and the day before the game Gary Williams had said that for the first time he didn't have to convince his players that they had a chance to win here. Their confidence showed early. They led, 23-16. But the Tar Heels caught and passed them with a run that would have been enough to shatter many teams.

Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse dunked on successive possessions to get the crowd into the game, Dante Calabria hit a three-pointer and Stackhouse drove the lane and threw down a vicious one-handed windmill dunk. When Donald Williams followed with a rainbow three-pointer, Carolina was up by three and the full house was in the aisles.

Then Smith collected his third foul chasing down a long rebound at Carolina's end with 5:33 left in the first half. He spent the rest of the half on the bench and Carolina built a seven-point lead.

The Heels pushed the lead to 11 points early in the second half, and then Smith collected his fourth foul trying to block a Wallace jump shot from 12 feet out. There were 16 minutes to play. The Terps had fallen into a hole out of which they couldn't possibly climb.

The mood in their locker room afterward wasn't particularly somber. Their attitude was that they would have won the game without the relatively freakish circumstance of Smith's foul trouble. True enough. But the Tar Heels' method of victory -- pounding the ball inside -- revealed a key weakness for the Terps, the absence of a banger to accompany Smith. (Booth is one, but, at 6-4, a little too small.)

It is a strange Carolina team. Not that big, quick, or deep. But it has balance. Calabria and Williams shoot jumpers, Wallace is strong inside, and Jeff McInnis is steady at the point. They don't make many mistakes. They didn't wobble when they couldn't put away the foul-prone Terps. They just held onto the lead and waited for the Terps to wilt. It finally happened in the last five minutes.

On a night when Joe Smith was just another Joe Smith, such an ending was inevitable.

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