Youth movement means it's Booth's time

January 21, 1996|By John Eisenberg

COLLEGE PARK -- Obinna Ekezie started at center, Terrell Stokes played point guard down the stretch, Sarunas Jasikevicius hit the big shot in overtime and Exree Hipp was planted on the bench for the last 21 minutes.

The Maryland Terrapins officially entered a full transitional phase yesterday at Cole Field House, right in the middle of the ACC season.

Keith Booth has never been more valuable.

The Terps are nothing if not vulnerable as coach Gary Williams rings in the new and rings out the old, reinventing his team on the fly and trying to salvage a season that has disappointed so far.

It wasn't supposed to happen to a team with four returning starters, but "necessity creates things," Williams said after the Terps beat North Carolina State, 77-74, yesterday to record their first conference win after three losses.

In this case, necessity has created a fragile team that relies on the rock-hard Booth more than any other player.

His potent reliability is becoming more and more essential to a team confronting change at the post and point.

Yesterday, he was immense with 14 points, a season-high 14 rebounds, five assists, four blocks and four steals in 43 minutes. That's contributions in five categories, a performance any coach would gladly frame and hang on the wall.

"It was about time somebody stepped up," Booth said. "This was a must-win game for us."

It also was a game that had Booth's name written all over it from the start. It wasn't one of those finicky Dean Smith games with sharp picks and crisp plays. It was a sloppy, emotional free-for-all, all jagged edges and loose balls. An East Baltimore special.

"I was having a lot of fun," Booth said with a smile. "It wasn't pretty out there. It was a war. I like situations like that."

His were the shoulders on which the Terps rested, particularly inside. That isn't likely to change with Hipp and Mario Lucas continuing to fail to provide an inside presence, pushing the raw but improving Ekezie into the starting lineup ahead of schedule.

For the rest of the season, it appears, Booth's shoulders are going to have to carry the same inside load they carried yesterday.

That doesn't bode well for the Terps considering Booth's relative lack of size at 6 feet 4. But the Terps could do a whole lot worse.

He is averaging 14.5 points and 8.8 rebounds in conference play, the totals up from his averages for the rest of the season and up considerably from his ACC averages of 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds a year ago.

"Keith Booth is a great college basketball player," Williams said. "And he is just a junior. And he is on our side."

No, he still doesn't have the consistent outside shot he'll need to make it big in the NBA. But there is still much to recommend him.

If the Terps are going to save this season, Booth's guile, quick hands and warrior's mentality will do more to save it than any other factor.

Perhaps his biggest contribution, according to Williams, was one that neither fans nor media witnessed. It came in practice this week, a week in which Williams decided that he had to begin making major changes, such as starting Ekezie and playing Stokes at the point.

"Accepting different roles is never easy on a team, particularly an experienced team," Williams said. "But Keith's leadership really shone. He set a tremendous example in practice, which he always does. You never have to tell him to pick it up.

"We had a good, hard week of practice at a time when we were somewhat lacking in confidence as a team. And then, after a week of leadership like that, Keith went out and backed it up today in the game."

Booth's alley-oop dunk, off a perfect 25-foot pass from Jasikevicius, was the highlight of a 17-2 second-half run with which the Terps took control. Coming from 44-35 down to a 52-46 lead, the Terps saved their hopes of salvaging the season.

N.C. State still rallied and took the game into overtime, and missed forcing another overtime only when a final three-pointer clanged off the rim at the buzzer. Ekezie's presence and Jasikevicius's three-pointer were huge, but Booth's performance underlined the whole effort.

"When I stepped it up today, other guys like Obinna and Sarunas stepped it up, too," Booth said. "I don't know if it came down to who wanted it more, because State played hard, too. But we out-fought them."

Thanks, in no small measure, to a player emerging as the Terps' heart and soul.

"Keith just does so much for us," Williams said. "He's a quiet leader. Sometimes I wish he said more. But that's OK. We draw so much from him."

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