OAKLAND, Calif. -- With 29.6 seconds left in last night's game, the college career of Maryland center Joe Smith may have ended. Taken out after giving his all for 32 minutes, Smith slumped in his chair as he went to the bench and buried his face into a towel.
His final numbers were impressive: 22 points, 14 rebounds. But not enough to keep Smith and the Terps from being eliminated by Connecticut, 99-89, in an NCAA West Regional semifinal at the Oakland Coliseum.
Now, the most pressing question about Smith is whether he will stay at Maryland for his junior season or opt for the riches that surely would await him in the NBA.
That question was asked immediately during the post-game news conference, but coach Gary Williams ran a little interference.
"We're here to talk about the great game Connecticut played," Williams said. "We'll talk about other things later on."
Pulled aside later on, Smith also ducked the question.
"I don't know right now," Smith said. "I just don't know."
It's a question that Smith will hear more and more until he makes his decision. If this was the finale, Smith, though his statistics were impressive, was not his usual dominating self.
That's because Smith got into foul trouble early, picking up his third with 5:05 left in the first half.
There was also a major scare in the first half when Smith, while blocking a shot, came down hard on his hip and lay on the ground for several minutes.
"It was really a shock," Smith said. "I fell down and landed on my hip. It hurt for a moment, but in a game like this, you have to walk it off."
Smith could walk off the fall, but he couldn't avoid the constant contact delivered by Connecticut 7-foot center Travis Knight, 250-pound reserve center Eric Hayward and the host of others who collapsed into the lane.
"I'm used to playing against physical opponents," Smith said. "That's all teams do in the ACC is play physical. [Connecticut] played zone most of the first half, and it was tough getting the ball inside."
The Terps trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, but seemed ready to get back into the game early in the second half, when Smith's layup with 19:16 left had Maryland within 49-45. But Connecticut went on a 21-6 run, having little trouble running and breaking the Maryland press. Donny Marshall's layup with 12:23 left gave the Huskies a 70-51 lead and control of the game.
"We couldn't stop their transition," Smith said. "They got a
rebound and kicked it right out. And when we did stop their transition, they did a good job in their set offense. We just couldn't fight back."
And that's why the Terrapins won't be getting a shot at top-ranked UCLA tomorrow. And why Smith now has to begin his decision-making process. With Smith, the Terrapins would return one of the top teams in the country. Without him, it's a rebuilding year. He means that much to the team.