WICHITA, Kan. -- They were going to get blinded by the bright lights of playing in their first NCAA tournament. They were going to get buried under an avalanche of three-point shots by Saint Louis. They were going to fly home quickly and quietly to College Park, satisfied with the experience and looking ahead to next season.
But the Maryland Terrapins would have none of that yesterday at the Kansas Coliseum. Playing its best game in a month, and one of its best of the season, 10th-seeded Maryland rode yet another sensational performance by freshman Joe Smith to a 74-66 victory over the 24th-ranked, seventh-seeded Billikens in the opening round of the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Smith finished with 29 points, the most by a Maryland freshman in an NCAA tournament game, to go with 15 rebounds and two blocked shots. The victory was the school's 11th straight without a defeat in the first round of the NCAA tournament, tying a record set by Ohio State. It put Maryland (17-11) into tomorrow's second round against No. 2 seed and eighth-ranked Massachusetts, which defeated Southwest Texas State, 78-60.
Running their half-court offense with more precision than they had all season, the Terps exploited a sizable height advantage over Saint Louis (23-6) to shoot 58.3 percent from the field. After twice frittering away double-digit leads, Maryland held its composure and made enough big plays down the stretch to make its first trip to the tournament in six years a triumphant one.
"It's a great thing getting invited to the NCAA tournament, but there's something better about winning that first game in the tournament," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who is 4-0 in first-round NCAA tournament games, 5-3 overall. "It means that you're one of the best 32 teams left playing in the country."
With one of the best players in the country. As he has all season, Smith came up large for Maryland yesterday. In front of a national television audience and a pro-Saint Louis crowd, the 6-foot-10 center from Norfolk, Va., hit his first seven shots. He helped the Terps take a 28-13 lead with less than six minutes left in the first half and, after Saint Louis cut its deficit to five by halftime, to a 60-48 lead with 9:15 to go.
"We had a big height advantage, and my teammates were looking for me," said Smith, who wound up 10 of 15 from the field. "I was sort of a first option. They played good low-post defense against me -- they were fronting me. We did a good job passing the ball on the perimeter to get the open shots."
Only some sloppy ball-handling in the first half, when the Terps committed 15 of their 19 turnovers, prevented it from being an early rout. But each time the Billikens made a run, Maryland answered.
After Saint Louis cut its deficit to 64-61 with a little more than four minutes left, Maryland got big baskets from sophomore guards Johnny Rhodes and Duane Simpkins -- the latter coming on a short jumper with one second left on the 45-second clock.
"You try to give them a reason for why the other team makes a run," said Williams, who was remarkably composed in his first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years. "In the first half, we told them it was because Johnny was on the bench [with three fouls]. But the thing was, we always had a good handle on it. We never let things get out of control. We always had the lead."
Said Saint Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour, whose team missed 15 of 22 three-pointers and seemed a step slow all day, "I liked the way Maryland played. They just came out and played hard. They didn't do anything crazy. They just played."
Still, Williams had to find another reason when the Billikens came storming back one last time. Following the second of two straight blown one-and-one opportunities by freshman forward Keith Booth, a 16-footer by junior guard H Waldman cut the Maryland lead to 70-66 with 61 seconds to play.
On what might have been a controversial call had the Terps lost, a ball that went out of bounds off Waldman's foot was given to the Billikens. With guard Erwin Claggett just inside half-court, Rhodes stripped him off the dribble. He drove to the basket and, feeling pressure from behind, missed a nearly uncontested layup. But Smith was there to take in the rebound, get fouled and make a pair of free throws.
"He [Rhodes] has very quick hands, and he made a great play," said Claggett, a 6-1 junior who got off only 10 shots all game -- hitting six for a team-high 16 points -- because of the defense played by Rhodes, 6-4. "But Smith's play was the biggest of the game. After that it was impossible for us to come back."
Said Rhodes, who finished with 14 points: "I knew we had two fouls to give, so the coaches told me to ride him all the way upcourt and gamble a little for the steal. It worked."
Down six, Saint Louis guard Carl Turner of Suitland, Md., missed on an inexplicable drive down the lane. Terps sophomore forward Exree Hipp was fouled and made a pair of free throws to seal the victory with 19 seconds to go. As the final seconds ticked away, and the Billikens missed one last time, the Maryland players began to celebrate their victory.
It put the Terps into the game they had wanted since the 64-team draw was announced. Back in December, when Maryland was still finding its way, the Terps ran into a more experienced and more aggressive Massachusetts team that turned a close game into a 14-point rout, the largest margin of defeat for Maryland this season.
"We've just got to keep surprising everybody," said Simpkins, who finished with a career-high 11 assists yesterday. "At the beginning of the year, people said we were too young. At the beginning of the tournament, people said we were lucky to get in. We're still proving people wrong, and hopefully we'll continue to do it."
NOTES: Rhodes had three steals yesterday, giving him 74 for the season and breaking the record he set as a freshman. . . . Simpkins, who tied Len Bias' school record for consecutive free throws at 32 last week against Virginia in the ACC tournament, missed his first attempt yesterday.
UMASS vs. MARYLAND
* Day: Tomorrow
* Time: 4:40 p.m. approx.
* Site: Wichita, Kan.
* Region: Midwest
* Seedings: Massachusetts No. 2, Maryland No. 10
* Records: Massachusetts 28-6, Maryland 17-11
* TV: Channels 11, 9
* Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)