Smith takes over when it counts

Tom Batters
Mariah Smith

Mariah Smith scored eight straight points to help Richwoods regain the lead Jan. 5 against Woodruff, but nobody in the gym was too surprised.

Except for Woodruff coach Steve Harper, perhaps.

Harper, in an apparent lapse of sanity, used a straight up man-to-man defense. Only one player guarded Smith, who pounced on the mismatch.

“They just had the one shorter player on me, so I took advantage of it,” said Smith, the junior who was an all-state selection last year as a sophomore. “We were down, and we needed something to get us going, so I did what I could to make something happen one-on-one.”

Smith has made things happen since she was a freshman, and she is a lock for all-state honors again this season.

When she has the ball, especially if she is guarded one-on-one, she will usually do something spectacular.

She’s pretty good without the ball, too.

Against Woodruff, she blocked two shots in a row (she blocked three in a row in last year’s semifinal game against Chicago Marshall), and she came up with a crucial steal when the game was tied with 1:25 left.

“She was the only one who hustled and got back on defense,” Richwoods coach Todd Hursey said after the 44-40 win at Woodruff. “As tired as she was, she still elevated her game to another level at the end.”

Hursey said Smith’s ability to take over games (remember that game at Central last year, when she scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to lead Richwoods to a come-from-behind victory?) is a great thing, but it can also be a curse, at times, if his young players “stand around and wait” for Smith to go on one of her scoring sprees.

“It’s great to have an all-state player of her caliber,” Hursey said. “But, we really need to get our other players involved. We don’t want to be one-dimensional.”

Last year, when the Lady Knights won the state championship, Smith had a solid group of experienced seniors around her.

This year, she has a much younger supporting cast.

She said she agrees with Hursey. She does not want to have to “take over” every game. She would rather be the floor leader who gets her teammates involved.

“Last year, we had somebody like DJ (Danielle DesJardins) who brought the team together,” Smith said. “I want to take on that role this year. I want to be the leader any way I can.”

After Harper came to his senses and put more than one player on Smith, she got her teammates involved. Sophomore Maggie Cunningham and junior Elise Tamplin had five points apiece in the fourth quarter after Smith fed them pinpoint passes over the tight defense.

If her teammates were not open, she dribbled through the double-team pressure and drove to the basket, forcing the Woodruff defenders to foul her as she sped past them.

She was eight-for-eight from the free throw line.

I asked Hursey, “Why don’t you just give her the ball, and let her do her thing, kinda like Michael Jordan did all those years with the Bulls?”

Hursey offered a rational explanation.

“There’s no question that she is our go-to player,” he said. “But, sooner or later, especially when the postseason comes around, we will need other players to step up. Other teams are going to focus on stopping Mariah. We need to be prepared for that.”

True. I understand Hursey’s point. Other teams will try to stop Smith.

But, how many will actually be able to do it?

Thoughts on Hursey...

Bare with me while I get something off my chest concerning Hursey and his first season as head coach after taking over for John Gross.

Gross’s firing was not a popular decision.

Hursey was thrown into an unenviable position.

He was asked to replace the fourth-winningest coach in Illinois girls basketball history who led Richwoods to the state championship last year.

The Lady Knights are 15-5, and they have experienced their share of ups and downs.

However, Richwoods would not be any better under Gross at this point in the season. Anyone who says that is letting their feelings about Gross’s firing get in the way of reality.

I was (and still am) a big John Gross fan, and I agree that his firing was a poor decision on so many levels.

But, I also have a great deal of respect for Hursey, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done so far.

He obviously has a different style than Gross. He is not as intense on the sideline. He does not shout or glare as much as Gross did.

Against Woodruff, at a critical part of the close game, a Richwoods player made a bad pass that went out of bounds. When that player came out of the game, Hursey gave her a pat on the back.

Gross would have hollered at her for making the bad pass.

One could argue that Gross’s style might be more effective in making the player think twice before making another bad pass, but that’s not the point here.

Keep this in mind the next time you want to claim that Richwoods would be so much better if Gross were on the sideline: Richwoods lost Danielle DesJardins, Maddie Nieukirk, Shyla Nott, Kelli Dunne and Amber Metzger from last year’s state championship team. All-state candidate Katie Murphy is out with an injury.

That’s a lot of talent to replace.

The Lady Knights are just not as dominant as they were a year ago. That’s not a knock on anyone. It’s just a fact.

They went 34-3 and won the state championship. Did anyone really expect them to be that good again?

You can actually argue that Hursey guided Richwoods to a better start than expected.

Richwoods is still a very good state-ranked team, despite being so young and inexperienced.

You can’t win the title every year. It would have been unfair to expect that, even if Gross was still here.