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For openers, Smith steals show


WICHITA, Kan. -- They will tell the story for a long time about Sensational Freshman Joe Smith playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

The flying dunk to start the game. The perfect first half from the floor.

In the hallways of campus, the aisles at Cole Field House, the alumni meetings -- anywhere that people gather to swap stories about Maryland basketball -- they will come back to this day often.

The inside/outside combination of jumpers, drives and spin moves. The four free throws to nail down the win.

They will come back to the day he shredded a 23-win team with a performance as complete as any given by a freshman in the NCAA tournament. They will come back to the day he scored 29 points, collected 15 rebounds and missed only six of his 25 field-goal and free-throw attempts.

They will come back to this day, when Smith is earning his NBA millions, and say they finally knew for sure what his future held. Because this kind of performance just doesn't happen often.

Maybe it seemed easy because Smith has made things look easy all season, but it is the rare player that takes his first dive into the NCAA tournament fishbowl and hits every shot from the field for 29 minutes. It is the rare player that, as an 18-year-old tournament rookie, collects as many first-half rebounds as all of his accomplished, experienced opponents put together.

Only a couple of freshmen in tournament history have carried otherwise average teams as resolutely as Smith did yesterday. Pervis Ellison and Louisville. Mark Aguirre and DePaul. Mark Maconand Temple.

"And the thing about this," Saint Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour said after Maryland's 74-66 win at the Kansas Coliseum, "is I don't think we did that bad a job on him."

True enough. The hole-in-the-middle Billikens gave up all sorts of height to Smith, too much, but they pushed him around the lane with a 230-pound widebody named Donnie Dobbs, put distracting hands in his face and used two defenders to make entry passes a rarity.

No matter. Smith was a marvel of economy. He touched the ball three times in the first six minutes, but each time made a basket. He took six shots in the first half, but hit them all. He went to the free-throw line five times during the game, and made nine of 10 shots.

The Terps, who led the whole game, needed a boost from Johnny Rhodes down the stretch to hold off a late rally, but Smith never budged as the centerpiece. He sealed the win with four straight free throws in the last 73 seconds.

Dobbs could only shake his head. "Joe played out of his mind," he said. "He played hard. Played intense. I've watched him a couple of times on TV, but that was by far the best I've seen him."

Not so, insisted Smith's teammates, who are accustomed to such games. "Just another game for Joe," Keith Booth said. "He was great. But he's always great."

Particularly when taking on a new challenge. Notice the pattern he has established. In his first college game, he had 26 points and nine rebounds against Georgetown. In his first Atlantic Coast Conference game, he had 28 and 13 against Georgia Tech. In his first ACC tournament game, he had 25 and 12 against Virginia. Now, 29 and 15 against Saint Louis.

When someone recited those figures to him after the game, Smith finally cracked -- a smile.

"It's just confidence," he said. "I'm pretty confident in the way I'm playing. I know that if I play to my capabilities, things are going to go well."

Terps coach Gary Williams said he could tell before the game that Smith was ready for something special.

"He got real quiet," Williams said. "And you know what they say: The scared lions are the ones who make the most noise at the zoo."

Smith insisted he was nervous, but it lasted only as long as the first possession. He won the tip, ran downcourt, took an entry pass and turned to the basket. "That right there was a great feeling," he said. "I've been playing big guys. I haven't even been able to see the basket."

This time, he drove straight to the basket and dunked, and the game's tone was immediately established. Smith went on to score on driving bank shots, post plays, jumpers from the baseline -- enough of a variety to cross a pro scout's eye.

He also threw in a couple of classic defensive moments: a block and grab, and a sequence where he altered three straight shots.

"I was talking to one [scout] last night," Spoonhour said, "and he said Smith was one of the best two or three players in the country, of any age. I'll say this: If there's a better one, I wouldn't want to see him."

The kid will have a tougher go tomorrow against taller, deeper Massachusetts, but no matter what happens, yesterday he carried the Terps to their biggest win since Lefty Driesell came driving home with the ACC tournament trophy on his hood a decade ago.

This was a symbol of how far the program has risen from its misery -- and how far Smith can take it in the coming years.

"I wish I could say I was surprised," Williams said, "but I stopped being surprised by Joe a while ago."

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