Smith's sweet finish touches up sour game

January 11, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

TALLAHASSEE FLA. — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Only in the end, the very end, did this caterpillar of a basketball game turn into a butterfly.

Only in the last six minutes of the second half was a splotch transformed, however briefly, into a little masterpiece.

For 35 minutes, the Maryland Terrapins were caught in a slow rumble with the Florida State Seminoles, a messy little dance of missed shots, loose balls, fouls, elbows and blocks. The scoreboard inched along. The arena got loud and hot and angry.

We're talking seriously ugly.

And then, suddenly, it was a thing of beauty. For just a couple of minutes, mind you. For just long enough to let Franchise Sophomore Joe Smith give everyone a glimpse of why the pro scouts love him like a son, why he alone elevates the Terps from a nice team into a Top 10 monster.

With the Terps clinging to a small lead and the State crowd roaring for a comeback and the lane completely clogged with defenders, as it had been all night, Smith stepped outside, took a pass and nailed a 19-foot jumper.

The next time down the floor, he moved out along the right baseline with the ball, faked an inside move, spun to the outside, rose and nailed a 15-footer.

Two long, momentum-killing jumpers. At the end of a night in which he also collected 18 rebounds, two shy of his career high.

And then, when the Seminoles closed again to within five points on a back-from-the-dead rally in the last three minutes, Smith finally found an opening inside, backed in on State center Corey Louis, turned and flipped in a left-handed shot while being fouled.

Inside, outside: forget about the upset, Florida State.

"What can you say?" said Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy after the Terps' 70-57 victory, in which Smith led the Terps with 18 points despite taking only 10 shots in 36 minutes. "We did a real good job on him, I thought, but then he takes the ball outside and scores seven points in a row. Unbelievable."

You can be sure that each of the half-dozen NBA scouts sitting underneath one of the baskets -- no fewer than that are at every Terps game -- smiled at the sight of Smith hitting the jumpers. As if his game weren't already lottery-pick complete.

"Joe is a good shooter," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "He talks about the fact that he'd like to see more plays called freeing him to shoot from out there. He takes a lot of pride in his outside shot. I'm happy to see him taking them from there at that point of the game. Especially when he makes them."

On the first jumper, the 19-footer, he had to move outside because the Terps wanted to get him the ball and he had no room inside. Such had been the case all night.

"They were running all sorts of defenses at me, a box-and-one, a sagging zone," Smith said later. "There was no way I'd be open. So I moved out and the shot was there."

Louis, a freshman center who blocked nine shots in an impressive performance, said, "I was shocked to see him out there. I'd watched him play a couple of times on TV, but I'd never seen him out quite that far. He's got a sweet shot, though."

The next time down the court, Louis stayed in step with Smith when Smith drifted out along the baseline. But Smith lost his game-long shadow with a left-right fake that freed him up to shoot.

"When Joe plays at the next level, he's going to be a factor at those places on the court," Williams said. "He'll be able to move outside and play forward, no question about it."

What made the clutch shooting performance such a masterpiece was that it came at the end of a night in which Smith showed just how strong he can be inside. Florida State has four players who are at least 6 feet 8, and Kennedy rotated them in against Smith all night. Smith did have some help in there -- Exree Hipp, Johnny Rhodes and Keith Booth combined for 18 rebounds -- but Smith alone had that many.

"It was tough going in there," he said. "They had a lot of big guys coming at us, and they're scrappy, always grabbing at loose balls and contesting everything. Every rebound was a fight."

Yet Smith never lost his cool, never argued a call, never forced a shot out of frustration. (Well, OK, he forced one shot in the first half. But that was the only one.)

And then, when there was a chance that the game could slip away, he did precisely what a player of his caliber is supposed to do.

Take the game in his hands.

On the road.

And win it.

"Typical performance from Joe," Williams said. "He battled and battled, but always stayed within himself no matter what was happening. And then he was there when we really needed it."

From 19 feet.

You better believe that's a masterpiece.

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