SAN ANTONIO -- Joe Smith took his quiet candidacy for National Player of the Year to a rather large constituency yesterday: a television audience that covered half the country, not to mention a number of voters who don't get to watch the 6-foot-10 sophomore All-American regularly.
Smith picked up more than a few votes, but more importantly picked up his erratic Maryland teammates for the umpteenth time. The seventh-ranked Terrapins needed each of his 26 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three steals to escape with a sloppy, 74-72 victory over Cincinnati in the opening game of the Seven-Up Shootout doubleheader at the Alamodome.
A pair of free throws by Smith with 16.1 seconds left gave Maryland a 74-70 lead and secured the victory. They came three seconds after Johnny Rhodes and Keith Booth combined to force Bearcats guard Darnell Burton into a jump ball, with the possession arrow pointing toward the Terps. The victory gave Maryland (20-5) its first 20-win season since 1984-85.
"It was a very big win, coming off the loss at Wake Forest," said Smith. "But we've got to get a lot smoother. We can't keep doing this."
It wasn't that Maryland was lucky to win, just fortunate that Cincinnati (17-9) failed to take advantage of Smith's second-half foul trouble or the way the Terps continued their season-long habit of squandering big leads. After falling behind 20-12 in the first eight minutes, the Terps led by as many as 12 late in the first half and by nine early in the second half.
"We didn't play particularly well at times, but we never lost heart," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "I'd like us to be more consistent, but you win any way you can."
Said Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins: "With a break or a whistle, we win the game. It was that close."
Maryland won because Smith had another huge game -- it marked the sixth time this season he had more than 20 points and 10 rebounds -- and because, unlike Wednesday night's loss in Winston-Salem, N.C., he got a little help from his friends.
Reserve forward Mario Lucas scored 13, making up for the fact that Booth was held scoreless for the first time this season. Rhodes had 15 points to go along with five assists and three steals. Exree Hipp scored 16. Burton led the Bearcats with 21.
"I thought it was a big key for us the way that Mario Lucas came off the bench in the first half," said Williams. "The way the game was going, we were able to keep Joe and Keith from getting into foul trouble until the second half."
It was Lucas who sparked Maryland's early comeback. A three-pointer by the 6-8 junior -- were you expecting anything else? -- started a run of 14 straight points. A pair of free throws by Lucas finished what would be a 26-6 run that gave the Terps a 38-26 lead with a little more than two minutes left in the first half.
"It seems every time I hit a three -- like UMass [in last year's NCAA tournament] or North Carolina -- it gets us going," said Lucas. "I don't know if the guards take it personally, seeing me step out for the three, but it picks the team up."
The pick-them-up was only temporary. Leading 40-32 at halftime and 43-34 with 18:32 remaining, Maryland watched as Cincinnati tied the score at 45 and eventually took the lead at 52-51 on a three-pointer by guard LaZelle Durden with 8:37 remaining. The Terps regained the lead and seemed to be in control when Smith's three-point play put them up 65-58 with 5:34 left.
But another three by Durden, who finished five of 14 from the field and only two of eight on threes, started another Cincinnati comeback. The Bearcats went on an 8-1 run to tie the game at 66 on a free throw by guard Damon Flint with 3:33 left. After a lob dunk by Hipp gave Maryland the lead, forward Danny Fortson tied the game at 68. Rhodes' three-pointer gave Maryland the lead for good.
In what turned out to be a key sequence, Fortson was called for his fifth foul as he tried to set up position on Smith. Fortson, a 6-7, 240-pound freshman, followed Cincinnati's other big man, 6-8, 235-pound center Art Long, out of the game. After Long's fifth foul, also trying to post up Smith, Huggins yelled at the officials, "He's not Joe Smith."
Said Smith: "When I picked up my fourth, I didn't want to come out. I'm smart enough to play with four fouls. When I saw their guys go out one right after the other, I thought soon it was going to be my turn. I didn't play as aggressively. I didn't give them a chance to call it."
It contributed to Smith's shooting two off-balance shots in the final minute, the first of which Booth retrieved and the second that went out of bounds. That's when Booth and Rhodes tied up Burton. The play by Rhodes helped make up for a foul he committed against Burton with 1:22 left. Burton cut Maryland's lead to 72-70 with a pair of free throws.
On the inbounds play, Maryland pressured Curtis Bostic, who nearly got called for a five-second violation before getting the ball to Burton right in front of him. Surrounded by Rhodes and Booth, Burton fell to the court as Rhodes appeared to keep his hand on the ball. The ensuing inbounds play then went to Smith, who tipped the ball over his head and retrieved it, getting fouled by Durden.
Said Long, who was watching from the bench: "LaZelle did the same thing that Keith Booth did and they didn't call a foul. The referee didn't know what to call, so he said, 'Joe Smith's an All-American. Let's see him hit some shots under pressure.' "
Smith did, winning another game for his team and a few more votes for himself.
NOTES: In the second game yesterday, Texas defeated Temple, 70-54. . . . The Terps jump back into the Atlantic Coast Conference with two home games this week, Wednesday against North Carolina State and Saturday against Clemson.
Team .. .. .. .. .. ACC .. Overall
No. Carolina ... . 10-3 .. .. 20-3
Virginia . .. .. . 10-3 .. .. 18-6
Maryland . .. .. .. 9-3 .. .. 20-5
Wake Forest . .. .. 8-4 .. .. 17-5
Georgia Tech ... .. 6-6 .. .. 16-9
Florida State .. .. 5-8 .. . 12-10
N.C. State .. .. .. 4-8 .. . 12-10 Clemson .. .. .. .. 3-9 .. .. 13-9
Duke .. .. .. .. . 1-12 .. . 11-14
Maryland 74, Cincinnati 72
Virginia 73, North Carolina 71
N.C. State 84, Duke 79
Florida St. 62, Clemson 57
Wake Forest 73, Ga. Tech 62
Florida at Florida St., 7 p.m.
N.C. State at Maryland, 8 p.m.
W. Forest at Clemson, 7:30 p.m.
Virginia at Ga. Tech, 8 p.m.
Fla. St. at Duke, 9 p.m.
TOUGH AT THE TOP
With North Carolina's loss yesterday, six of the top 12 teams in college basketball lost this weekend (Carolina-Virginia coverage, 7C):
1. Connecticut (20-2) lost to No. 15 Villanova, 96-73, on Saturday
2. North Carolina (20-3) lost to No. 16 Virginia, 73-71, yesterday
3. Kansas (20-3) beat Kansas State, 78-67, Saturday
4. Kentucky (18-4) beat Florida, 87-77, on Saturday
5. Massachusetts (20-3) beat Louisville, 91-76, yesterday
6. UCLA (18-2) beat No. 12 Arizona, 72-70, yesterday
7. Maryland (20-5) beat Cincinnati, 74-72, yesterday
8. Michigan State (18-4) lost to No. 24 Minnesota, 66-57, Saturday
9. Missouri (18-4) lost to Oklahoma, 94-89, Saturday
10. Arkansas (21-5) beat Mississippi, 85-70, Saturday
11. Syracuse (17-6) lost to Seton Hall, 82-74, Saturday
12. Arizona (19-6) lost to No. 6 UCLA, 72-70, yesterday