Oakland, Calif. -- Slump.
The word is not part of his vocabulary, or even part of his always-confident mind-set. But it's a word Maryland forward Keith Booth had heard often over the second half of the regular season.
"Slump?" the 6-foot-5, 221-pound sophomore from Baltimore said bit incredulously a couple of weeks ago. "Nah. My points have fallen off a bit, that's all. But the most important thing is that we're winning."
Maryland (26-7) is still winning, and still alive, heading into tonight's NCAA West Regional semifinal against Connecticut (27-4) at the Oakland Coliseum. And Booth's slump appears to be over.
After showing signs of putting the pieces back together in the ACC tournament, Booth seemed to be more in sync in Maryland's first two NCAA tournament games. He again did the things that made him such a promising talent coming out of Dunbar as well as during his first 1 1/2 seasons in College Park.
"I know people were saying I was in a slump, but I was playing the same way then as I am now," Booth said yesterday. "The only difference is that my shot is starting to fall."
After making only nine of 36 shots over the last six games of the regular season -- and taking only one shot in 20 foul-plagued minutes in the team's 92-67 loss at Virginia on March 5 -- Booth was 5-for-20 in Greensboro, N.C., for the ACC tournament.
"I think he was pressing," said Maryland assistant coach Art Perry. "He was thinking about it too much. He had several games where he either got in early foul trouble or got a couple of shots blocked early. He's just got to play through it."
Apparently, Booth has.
Since missing five of six shots in the first half of Maryland's 87-63 victory over 14th seed Gonzaga in the opening round at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Booth has made eight of his last 10. He was 5-for-6 in an 82-68 victory over 11th seed Texas, finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Booth was more aggressive, finishing his drives to the basket instead of forcing contact. He played a key role in the Terps' ability to break the press -- something he will be asked to do against the Huskies -- by using his smooth ball-handling skills to split defenders and set up easy baskets for himself and his teammates. His 26 rebounds, including a career-high 15 against Gonzaga, is the most by any player in this year's tournament.
Asked to describe the recent upswing in his play, Booth said: "It's tournament time. It's time to play."
Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "Keith's been huge for us. But he's the kind of player who seems to be at his best in the bigger games, and at this time of year, they're all big. The thing that people forget sometimes is that he's only a sophomore."
After a quietly sensational freshman year that ended with an exclamation point -- a 17-point, nine-rebound performance against Michigan in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament -- Booth had shown glimpses of greatness earlier this season.
The breakthrough performance seemed to come when Booth scored a career-high 22 points, to go along with nine rebounds, in a 74-72 victory over Duke on Jan. 28. With All-American Joe Smith shackled offensively, Booth carried the Terps down the stretch. He scored the team's last eight points, including a game-winning baseline dunk.
"I've had some good scoring games and I've had some great games," said Booth, whose season averages of 11.0 points and 7.2 rebounds are nearly identical to the numbers he put up as a freshman. "But it's the other things that the team needs me to do, like play good defense and play hard, that are even more important sometimes."
Booth's work ethic epitomizes this year's Maryland team. But so does his lack of size. Like Smith, he's playing out of position, a power forward whose strength is often negated by his height.
Sometimes, Booth's quickness has helped him, as in the first Duke game when he constantly left 6-11 Cherokee Parks standing flatfooted as Booth spun by him along the baseline. But Booth also gets a high number of shots blocked, especially for a player of his ability.
"That's the way it's always been since I came to Maryland to play in the ACC," said Booth, who'll be matched up with a similarly built, if not a bit quicker player, in Connecticut senior Donny Marshall. "After a while you get used to it. You just have to go at it a little harder."
To Booth's credit, he didn't allow the recent shooting slump to affect his free-throw shooting, his rebounding or his defense. Perhaps the biggest improvement in Booth's game has been at the foul line, where he's jumped from 58.4 percent to 69.6 rTC percent by correcting a hitch in his shooting motion.
"The regular season is important, but the postseason is what it's all about," said Booth, who is averaging 12.6 points and nine rebounds while shooting 24 of 38 from the field in five NCAA tournament games. "It's when the best players step up."
KEITH BOOTH'S STATISTICS
Year .. G-GS ..FG-FGA . 3p-3PA . FT-FTA . Reb Ast. St. Blk. Avg
1993-94 30-30..113-249 . 11-27 . 87-149 . 6.1 65.. 45. 17. 10.8
1994-95 33-33..122-268 .. 8-20 .112-161 . 7.2 73.. 42. 12. 11.0
Totals ... 63..235-517 . 19-47 .199-310 . 6.7 138..87. 29. 10.9