SALT LAKE CITY -- How many times has the Maryland basketball team played the game it played last night? How many times has All-American Joe Smith saved the Terrapins from potential defeat and utter despair?
Maryland still might not have a killer instinct, but thanks to Smith, the 10th-ranked, third-seeded Terps have their second straight trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. It resulted from Smith's record-breaking performance in last night's 82-68 win over 11th-seeded Texas.
Coming off the worst game of his otherwise brilliant college career against Gonzaga here Thursday night at the Huntsman Center, Smith had the best all-around performance by a Maryland player in an NCAA tournament game.
Smith scored 31 points on 10-of-17 shooting, pulled down 21 rebounds, blocked seven shots and, despite having to suck oxygen on the bench during the second half, helped get the Terps back on course after the Longhorns had taken the lead.
The victory puts Maryland (26-7) into the NCAA West Regional semifinals Thursday night at the Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum. The Terps will play second-seeded, eighth-ranked Connecticut, which earlier in the day defeated seventh-seeded Cincinnati, 96-91. It marks the sixth time in school history that Maryland has reached the Round of 16.
Smith's point total, which came after he scored only nine in the opening round, tied the record set by Len Bias against Nevada-Las Vegas in the second round in 1986. His rebound total, which came after he tied a season low with four, tied his career high and was one better than Tom Roy's in the 1975 regional final. His blocked shots set a tournament record for the Terps and tied Smith's career high.
"A lot of people didn't expect me to come back the way I did, but I just wanted to prove them wrong," said Smith, who also had four steals. "The fans in Utah haven't seen me play much, and I think a lot of them were thinking, 'He's not as good as everyone says.' "
Despite Smith's awesome performance, Maryland still struggled at times, blowing most or all of nine-point leads on four different occasions and falling behind by a point with less than nine minutes to go. But the Terps quickly recaptured their lead and finally put away the Longhorns down the stretch.
"We've done that all season, that's the way we play," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who will mark his fourth coaching appearance in the Sweet 16 in his 17-year career. "The one thing we did was when we fell behind, we ran our offense well and we got more aggressive."
Said Texas coach Tom Penders: "It was a hard-fought, gritty battle. Maryland is an outstanding team, and they were able to pull away at the end. But we hung in there. They didn't have a comfortable moment until there were 30 seconds left in the game."
Penders might have been exaggerating, but not by much. As happened all season, the Terps couldn't quite put their opponent away. They had a chance right before halftime, but a 35-26 lead with less than a minute left became 35-30 at halftime when a pair of Maryland turnovers led to baskets by the Longhorns.
After building it back to nine twice in the first three minutes of the second half, Maryland had a chance to take it into double digits when Smith had a wide-open dunk off a steal. But Smith missed the dunk, and Texas guard Roderick Anderson scored on a three-point play at the other end.
The Terps would stretch it back to nine again, 46-37, with 15:48 to go.
This time, the Longhorns came roaring back. With Maryland leading 54-46, Texas went on a 9-0 run to take the lead, 55-54, on a three-point shot by guard Reggie Freeman with 8:24 left.
But Keith Booth (12 points, 11 rebounds) put the Terps back ahead with a drive. The game later was tied at 58-all and 60- all.
"When we took the lead, it seemed like we had the momentum," said Texas guard Terrence Rencher. "But we missed a lot of free throws [11 of 28] and they seemed to get a lot of the calls down toward the end."
A three-point play off a dunk by Exree Hipp, who was fouled and made the free throw, put Maryland ahead for good, 63-60.
It took until Duane Simpkins made a three for a 70-63 lead with 3:10 left, and the Longhorns kept missing their free throws, for the Terps to secure their place in the Sweet 16.
"We've had games all year when we had to fight from behind, and we did it again tonight," said Simpkins, who finished strong after a shaky offensive performance that saw him take only two shots and commit five of Maryland's 21 turnovers. "I think we showed our maturity at the end."
It was not only Hipp's offense (13 points, three assists) that helped Maryland, but also his defense.
The 6-foot-8 junior forward, who has become the team's stopper, kept Rencher off-balance all game. The 6-3 senior guard, the school's and Southwest Conference's all-time leading scorer, had a quiet 15 points to lead Texas (23-7).
"Maryland is an excellent defensive team and Exree Hipp is a defensive player," said Rencher. "Everywhere I went, he was right there. He didn't let me breathe."
But the Longhorns didn't allow the Terps to relax until there was a little more than a minute left.
Texas helped Maryland reach that moment by missing its last four free throws, five of its last six and eight of 12. The Longhorns never got into their run-and-gun game and wound up shooting a season-low 35.3 percent from the field.
In the end, though, what those who watched last night's game will remember was the way Smith proved he is one of the best, if not the best, college player in the country.
He took Texas center Rich McIver out of the game so quickly that the burly 6-9 senior played only four minutes in the first half and eight minutes total before fouling out.
"It would have been tougher for Joe [had McIver not gotten in foul trouble]," said Penders. "But he's such a great player and a great scorer. I don't know if anyone is going to stop him."
Going into last night's game, Williams was concerned with Smith. Not so much from his lackluster performance in the opening round, but in the pressure and focus that seems to follow the 6-10 sophomore center wherever he goes.
"I think with the awards he got last week [ACC Player of the Year, first-team All-American], he wanted to come out and be Superman Thursday night," said Williams. "Today I told him to come out and just be Joe Smith."
The way this season has gone, the way his career has gone, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
Joe Smith's 30-point games:
Opp. ... ... ... Pts. ... ... Result
Rider .. ... ... 33 .. .. ... W, 93-79
Oklahoma ... ... 30 .. .. ... L, 88-85
Utah ... ... ... 33 .. .. ... W, 90-78
UMass .. ... ... 30 .. .. ... L, 85-74
Clemson .. .. .. 33 .. .. ... W, 84-68
Duke ... ... ... 40 .. .. ... W, 94-92
Texas* ... .. .. 31 .. .. ... W, 82-68
* -- NCAA tournament