For Smith's last hurrah, a slow start or preview?

March 11, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Here's a scary thought: What happens to the Maryland Terrapins next season when Joe Smith isn't around to save them?

Smith went almost 30 minutes before scoring his first basket last night, then had to leave the game because of a bloody right knee.

Seconds later, he was back. Back with his knee taped. Back with a vengeance. Back doing all the wonderful things he does on a basketball court.

His three-pointer with 8:05 left gave Maryland its first lead, and that was just the start. Smith did his usual star turn, saving balls, blocking shots, grabbing every rebound.

To think, his stunning eruption occurred after he got into early foul trouble and contributed only two free throws in the worst half of his college career.

Maryland fans can take comfort knowing Smith is still here, and knowing Gary Williams soon will be back.

But this is it, folks.

The Terps can't stop now.

It's almost fantasy to think Smith will return for his junior season after the revelation that poor grades rendered him ineligible for the John R. Wooden Award.

Think Smith wants to see his academic difficulties plastered all over the sports pages for another year? He didn't attend Maryland to graduate with honors. He attended Maryland to graduate to the NBA.

It was against this stark, urgent backdrop that the Terps advanced to the semifinals of the ACC tournament for the first time in six years last night, defeating Florida State, 71-64.

They trailed by 10 points in the first half, and seven with 12:19 remaining. Smith converted his first basket off a steal with 10:12 left, injuring his knee while getting fouled.

He finished with 15 points and 16 rebounds.

Three Florida State big men fouled out trying to guard Smith. Virginia used the same tactic in beating Maryland by 25 points Sunday, but the Seminoles couldn't hold on.

Smith said he wasn't worried -- "We were still in the game. I figured it would come to me down the stretch." But first, the Terps needed to slow down their offense, and get him the ball.

"We had a good game plan in the beginning -- keep him frustrated," Florida State center Andre Reid said. "When they started calling fouls on us, we couldn't do it anymore. He just took over."

The Terps won because their press finally started working in the final 10 minutes. They won because of strong bench play from Mario Lucas (12 points) and Wayne Bristol (six). And they won despite making 19 turnovers.

No one envisioned that last night's opener would carry such meaning. But so much has changed for this team since its upset of North Carolina a month ago.

Beating Florida State wasn't necessary to impress the NCAA tournament committee. Beating Florida State was necessary for this team to regain momentum as its biggest games approach.

This is it, folks. The Terps lost their coach, if only temporarily, and soon they will lose their best player. Either they straighten out quickly, or the last days of the Smith Era will go to waste.

Last night they faced a team they beat by 13 and 15 points in the regular season, a team with virtually no shot of making the NCAAs, a team with nothing to play for.

It was as good a place as any to start.

No question, the Terps miss Williams. No question, they'll benefit when he returns. But right now, they're playing so unsteadily, they might not escape the second round of the NCAAs.

The prospect is utterly haunting, considering that Maryland will be lucky to get that far next season if Smith departs.

The big question is, do other Terps face similar academic problems? It would be bad enough to lose Smith. It would be even worse to lose others.

Smith forfeited his opportunity to win the Wooden Award because he could not maintain a 2.0 (or C) grade-point average through the fall semester.

The five juniors on Maryland's roster need to carry the same 2.0 GPA into their senior years to remain academically eligible. If one or more of them fail to meet that requirement, the Terps would be further weakened.

Still, that's a concern for next season.

Last night's victory set up a third meeting with North Carolina today. Remember, Maryland beat Carolina at Cole Field House, with Williams coaching. It probably won't happen again at the Greensboro Coliseum under Billy Hahn.

No big deal -- the Terps don't need to win, they just need to play well. That way, they'd ensure at least a No. 3 seed in an NCAA regional. And they'd reverse the slide that began at Duke, when Smith saved them at the buzzer.

This is it, folks. For all their success under Williams, the Terps hadn't won an ACC tournament quarterfinal since 1989, Bob Wade's last season. Their only tournament victories under Williams were in '92 and '93, in the play-in round.

Zka,4 Thus, last night amounted to an important hurdle. In a normal situation, the conference tournament means nothing for the No. 10 team in the country. This is not a normal situation, not with the coach ailing, and the star center thinking NBA.

This is it, folks.

Gary, or no Gary.

Now, or never.

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