CLEVELAND – Before the season, UB women’s head coach Felisha Legette-Jack sat Joanna Smith down in her office and told Smith to reflect back on the final game of her high school basketball career in Mississippi.
Smith always had a tendency to defer to her teammates until there was a crisis. But in the state championship game, Smith took over and carried her team in a four-overtime loss – a game she still considers her top athletic moment.
“She kept taking the shots to get them to the next overtime,” Jack said Thursday. “I told her, ‘Well, the time has come again. We can’t wait for the state championship game. We need you now.’ ”
As a junior, it was time for Smith to emerge from the shadows and lead the Bulls, who had lost the top four scorers, and 87 percent of the offense, from a team that went 19-13 and reached the WNIT in 2014-15.
The experts had picked Buffalo to finish last in the East. You know, a rebuilding year. But Jack knew that if Smith realized her enormous talent, the Bulls could surprise people and make a run at a MAC title.
Smith got the message. She blossomed into a first-team all-MAC star in her third college season, leading UB in scoring at 17.6 points a game (up from 5.6 as a sophomore) and finishing second in MAC games at 19.3 a game.
The 5-foot-8 guard posted career highs in scoring, field-goal percentage, rebounds and steals. Smith has canned 34.4 percent of her three-pointers and has made 87 threes, third among MAC women and the third-most in a season by a UB player.
“To be honest, I haven’t seen my best potential yet,” Smith said after UB worked out in advance of today’s noon MAC semifinal against Akron. “I don’t know when it’s coming, maybe after college, maybe professionally.
“But my best game hasn’t come yet, and I’m still waiting for it.”
Maybe she’s waiting for another title game. The Bulls are back in the MAC semis for the third straight year after stunning No. 1 seed Ohio in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. A win today would lift the Bulls into the first MAC championship game in their history.
And to think, Smith might not be in Buffalo if not for an injury she suffered during her junior year at Southaven (Miss.) High. While long jumping in a meet at Mississippi State in the spring of 2012, she landed awkwardly in the pit and broke the femur – the longest bone in the body – in her right leg.
Smith underwent emergency surgery half an hour after the accident. She missed Mississippi’s prestigious North-South high school All-Star Game. Worse yet, she missed the entire AAU summer circuit after her junior year, the critical recruiting time when college coaches decided on prospects.
“I was being recruited by the SEC, ACC, a lot of SWAC schools,” she said. “But when I broke my leg, I couldn’t get any exposure, so people backed off. They wanted to see how I would do my senior year.
“But Buffalo stayed the whole way. They didn’t let up at all. Matter of fact, they contacted me every day to see how I was doing with treatments and all that. So when a school keeps in touch with you like that, it’s a school you have to stay connected to.”
She also wanted to go to school far from home. Smith wasn’t fazed by the blizzard on her recruiting trip to Buffalo. It didn’t hurt that Jack had hit it off with her mother, Vernita, from the start.
“Oh, my mom loves Coach Jack,” Smith said. “We loved her energy from the get-go. She was a welcoming lady, jokey, kind of like my mom. We made that connection right away.
“I remember when Coach Jack visited me in high school. We had a meeting in my coach’s office. On the way home, my mother said, ‘Jo, I really think you should go to Buffalo.’ I said, ‘Mama, I was thinking the same thing.’ ”
Call her right now, her mother said.
“So I got on the phone and called her right before she got on the plane,” Smith said. “I told her, ‘I’m committing to Buffalo’. She let out a couple of screams on the plane. It was pretty crazy.”
Smith did a lot of deferring early in her career. She played sparingly as a freshman and didn’t hit her stride until late in her sophomore year, after Jack brought her to tears in a practice. Smith averaged 15 points over the final six games, a portent of good things to come.
“She’s such a humble young lady that’s driven and hungry on the inside,” Jack said. “But sometimes she lacked the ability to say, ‘Let me show you.’ Well, you give her permission and, as when you’ve given any woman permission to be great, greatness seems to come.
“She went with it. She’s been the most unbelievable leader in the locker room, who bought in totally into what we are doing as coaches.”
A big part of being a leader in gaining confidence, the kind that comes from being in prime shape and ready to carry a heavier work load.
“Last summer, I worked on my conditioning a lot,” she said. “To play 37-plus minutes every night, you have to be able to get up and down the floor. So I worked on a lot of shooting conditioning. You’ve got to be able to shoot when you’re tired, first of all.”
Smith still has the steel rod in her right leg from the broken femur. The rod will stay in until her basketball career is over. As for this season, she doesn’t want a quarterfinal upset to be the high point.
“Oh, no,” she said. “We’re not content at all. We’re here for a championship and that’s our main focus.”