WICHITA, KAN. -- It was appropriate that Maryland won its NCAA tournament game -- the first since an unjust NCAA probation -- on a court in Kansas, home to the NCAA, the dictatorial governing body that crippled the Maryland basketball program three years ago. Thursday’s victory may leave the Maryland Terrapins light years away from the Final Four, but it represents a huge first step on the road back to the big-time. You don’t measure real progress by beating Georgia Tech in January, you measure it by how feisty you are deep into March. “We talk about it among ourselves all the time,” freshman center Joe Smith said, “about how Maryland basketball, because of everything that happened, has been down and out for a few years. We talk about it all the time, how we want to get Maryland back on the college basketball map.”
Nearby, Gary Williams looked as fresh and as energetic as he ever has immediately following a game, any game. Walking off the court inside Kansas Coliseum, a musty old barn of an arena, Williamscould see the faces of a few of the NCAA officials who stuck his basketball program with a harsh two-year probation in 1991.Williams looked right at them, but didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. Maryland had just won an NCAA tournament game.
“It gives us credibility,” he said. “Nobody can say we didn’t belong. We beat Number 21 in the country. I feel so good for these kids. They made a commitment to come to Maryland before we were any good. I told them, ‘We can be good if you come,’ and they bought into it. That’s the knot, that’s why they’re so close.”
This is what the players celebrated in the locker room afterward: being on the map again, going from nonexistent to dreadful to respectable. Winning one game can do that for you if it’s the right game, if it’s played in March and there are NCAA tournament banners hanging high. It was Maryland’s biggest victory in 10 years and nobody was happier than Smith, a mere kid with an ordinary name and an extraordinary game. He made 10-of-15 shots from the field, 9-of-10 free throws, grabbed 15 rebounds, scored 29 points and made 2 steals. He played every single second of the second half. NBA scouts moved closer to the court to get a look.
“He played out of his mind,” a St. Louis player named Donnie Dobbs said. “I talked to a guy last night who’s a pro scout,” St. Louis Coach Charlie Spoonhour said, “who feels Joe Smith is one of the two or three best college players in the country, any age. If there’s a better one, I don’t want to look at him.”
One play told the story of Maryland’s 74-66 victory better than any. After Keith Booth had missed a foul shot with 54.6 seconds left, Maryland clung to a 70-66 lead, that was precarious at best considering St. Louis has people who shoot threes as effortlessly as they make layups. One of them, a guard named Erwin Claggett, was bringing the ball upcourt when sophomore Johnny Rhodes gambled. Well, it was a calculated gamble because Rhodes was well aware Maryland had a couple of fouls to give. But he didn’t foul, he picked Claggett clean at midcourt then fired off on a breakaway. Most big men, even some great ones, are at the other end resting and celebrating, especially if they’d played without a rest the second half. Not Joe Smith. Rhodes missed the layup with the Billikens hot in pursuit, but guess who grabbed the rebound? Mr. Freshman. Smithhit two free throws with 36.1 ticks left and that was the game.
Once upon a time another freshman won a first-round game for the Maryland Terrapins, with a jumper at the buzzer to beat Tennessee-Chattanooga. His name was Len Bias. But not even he had to carry the load that sits atop Smith’s shoulders. “He’s a guy who can answer a lot of problems,” Spoonhour said, having benched one gimpy center because he wasn’t fast enough to keep up with Smith.
All Smith did was hit his first seven shots. It was no big deal to him because he had a decided height advantage. But it’s a big deal anytime a freshman can bring this much poise and this much game to the madness of March.
Gary Williams pointed out that Mr. Freshman’s game starts with his head. In Maryland’s first game of the season, against Georgetown and the celebrated Othella Harrington, Smith put up 26 points and nine rebounds. In the first ACC game of the season, Smith put up 28 and 13 down at Georgia Tech. In his first ACC tournament game, 25 and 12. All were away from home. “It’s typical of the way he reacts in new situations,” Williams said. “The first thing you have to notice about Joe Smith is his intelligence. What he does is focus real well. He figures out things so well. Before the game, he gets nervous but he’s quiet, staring at the floor, thinking. It’s like Bill Russell wrote in his book, ‘Second Wind,’ about seeing moves on TV, then going to the playground to do them. Joe is like that. He sees how he can get open on tape, or you diagram something once, and he does it.”
As dominant as Smith was, there were so many other ingredients that were necessary for Maryland’s special victory. The Terrapins needed a dash of Johnny Rhodes’s defense, a pinch of outside shooting from Exree Hipp, Duane Simpkins and Rhodes, and a cup of tenacity around the basket and on defense. It certainly didn’t hurt that Gary Williams was on his Sunday-best behavior. “I knew they were going to be nervous, and they didn’t need me losing control,” he said after making a conscious decision to leave his usual rage at home, at least for now.
At just the right time, Maryland made everything work. If the Terrapins were going to turn the ball over, then they’d just step up the defense and make St. Louis turn it over more. If the Billikens were going to extend their defense, Maryland would work slowly, patiently, until Smith was in position to take a pass inside.
Williams kept talking about how happy he was for the players who could have gone elsewhere and been assured of so much more. “You know all the recruiters told them, ‘You don’t want to go to Maryland, they’ve got big problems,’ “ Williams said.
Smith was asked which of last year’s five freshmen prevailed on him to give Maryland a try. “They all did,” he said. “They said, ‘Joe there’s a spot open for you. We can do this.’ “