In Smith's shadow, Booth still lights the way for Terps

January 10, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- As a freshman playing against Florida State here last season, Keith Booth carried a tired Maryland team to a much-needed victory. His performance not only helped the fading Terrapins break a four-game losing streak, but also illustrated his importance to what had the makings of a one-man team.

It came on an afternoon when fellow freshman Joe Smith had gotten into foul trouble and eventually fouled out with a couple of minutes remaining. Booth would finish with 15 points, including 11 of 14 from the free-throw line, and helped Maryland hang on to a 69-66 win.

"I did a good job of fouling some of their guys out after they had fouled Joe out," said Booth.

Booth and his teammates will try to have the same success tonight, when ninth-ranked Maryland (11-3, 1-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) plays Florida State (6-4, 0-2) in an 8 p.m. game at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center. This time, they hope Smith is around for more than the 25 minutes he played last year.

Or the 20 he played in Saturday night's 100-90 defeat to then-No. 1 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. But just as that loss reaffirmed Smith's importance to Maryland's success, it provided similar evidence of the need for Booth to be on the court. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound forward fouled out with a little more than five minutes remaining, and the Tar Heels pulled away for good.

"Last year, we were a tougher team when Keith was on the court," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "We're a more mature team than we were last season, but we still need Keith on the court to be successful."

While continuing to play in the shadow of Smith, a consensus All-American, and possibly junior Johnny Rhodes, whose consistency has made him one of the best all-around players in the ACC, Booth has managed to raise his game another level.

He has improved in nearly every statistical category: points, from 10.8 to 13.1; rebounds, from 6.1 to 6.8; field-goal shooting, from 40.7 to 54 percent; free throws, from 58.4 to 66.3 percent. He also has reduced his fouls, from 3.6 a game to 2.3.

"That's the difference in my game. Last year, I'd pick up a lot of silly fouls," said Booth, who has fouled out three times this season. "But I still try to do whatever it takes to help the team win."

Said Williams: "Keith's got to get out of playing summer-league defense in the winter. You've got to play defense with your feet in the winter, not your hands."

RTC Williams also would like Booth to cut down on turnovers, a team high of more than 3.4 a game. They often result from trying to do too much, whether it's making a slick move to the basket, threading a difficult pass inside or simply shuffling his feet as he gets ready to shoot.

Though Booth's offensive consistency has improved, as well as his range, he seems to be caught in a transition between being a mostly inside player to one who can take his game outside.

"Keith gets a lot of pressure from people in Baltimore who say to him, 'You've got to be a jump shooter,' " said Williams. "That part of his game will come. His best game is taking the ball to the basket. Guys have gotten to the NBA playing the way Keith does."

Said Booth: "I'm not trying to live up to anyone's expectations but my own. What people outside say doesn't matter to me. I consider myself a player."

In some ways, Booth is the same kind of player he was growing up, one who'd make up for a lack of height with an abundance of heart. So, in essence, he merely is reliving his childhood in East Baltimore, when it often meant going up against his first cousin, Donta Bright, a former Dunbar High teammate and now a junior starter for top-ranked Massachusetts, or other older, bigger players in the neighborhood.

"When I was 11 and he was 12, he was about four or five inches bigger than me," said Booth. "If I could play against him, I thought I could play against anybody."

Those one-on-one battles with Bright in the family's back yard, and in pickup games later on at the Tench Tilghman Rec Center, have been replaced by battles on a bigger stage with players such as All-Americans James Forrest of Georgia Tech or Lou Roe, Bright's teammate with the Minutemen.

Against the Tar Heels, Booth had potentially his toughest matchup of the season, with 6-6, 220-pound sophomore Jerry Stackhouse.

And tonight, Booth will have to go against a player he has yet to face: highly touted Corey Louis, a 6-9, 215-pound freshman.

"When you choose to go to an ACC school, you're going to face great players every night," said Booth, who just missed making the league's all-freshman team last season. "That's why I chose Maryland. If you're not ready for that type of competition, you shouldn't be here."

Booth sums up his philosophy about playing in a typically direct manner. "It wouldn't matter to me if a baby was out there; I'd take him to the basket," said Booth.

He laughed.

"But a baby shouldn't be out on the court," he said.

In less than two years at Maryland, Booth has proven he belongs. He already has helped win more than his share of games for the Terps, and his absence because of fouls has cost his team as well.

"He's an impact player in the ACC, and that makes him one of the best players in the country," said Williams. "Where he goes from here depends on how hard Keith wants to work and how much time he wants to spend in the gym during the spring and summer. But he has a tremendous up side."

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