LEWISTON – Joanna Smith was muddling along in her sophomore season last February as a 3.4 points-per-game scorer for the University at Buffalo women’s basketball team.
All of a sudden, she discovered a scoring touch and averaged 15 points over the last six games of the year.
The 5-foot-8 guard from Mississippi has picked up where she left off last season. Smith tied a career high with 26 points Monday to lead UB over Niagara, 57-48. UB improved to 7-3. Smith is carrying an otherwise shaky Bulls offense with a 15 ppg average.
Smith can pinpoint exactly when her career took off late last season.
“It was the day Coach Jack made me cry in practice,” Smith said, referring to UB’s Felisha Legette-Jack. “Ever since then, it’s been off the go for me.”
“That particular practice, she kept passing the ball and traveling,” Legette-Jack recalled. “I was like, I’m either gonna lose this kid and she’s gonna transfer, or she’s gonna play. But I’m not going to let her stay behind, thinking that it’s her position to be behind other players. I just think she absolutely knows the game, and her shot is what we needed.”
“Right after we got a little emotional, I brought her over and explained to her it’s time now; you’re OK,” Legette-Jack said. “She rose to the occasion.”
Smith showed Niagara her ability to take over a game with the score tied, 35-35, early in the second half. She scored 10 straight UB points to give the Bulls control for good, 45-39. She hit two jumpers near the foul line, scored in traffic in the lane and hit two free throws.
Smith is a slasher to the basket and an energetic defender who can score in transition. She also has improved her jump shot a lot over the past year. She leads UB with 22 three-pointers this season.
“The difference this year is confidence in myself,” Smith said. “My teammates give me confidence. I don’t get anything I get alone. Someone’s always giving me the ball or giving me that talk on the bench saying you got it, Jo.”
Legette-Jack says she saw Smith as leading-scorer material since the day she recruited her out of Southaven High School, which is on Mississippi's northern border, in the Memphis, Tenn., metropolitan area.
"Sitting in that office recruiting her in her high school with her mom there and her coach there, I told them both I want to bring her here to lead this team," Jack said.
"I offered her a scholarship, and she didn’t accept," Legette-Jack said. "But when I got to the airport her mom called me and said my daughter needs to talk to you right now."
Smith made 10 of 15 field-goal attempts against Niagara. She’s also averaging 5.2 rebounds a game.
“She played within herself,” Legette-Jack said. “She played poised. She’s the most unselfish young lady you could ever coach. It’s difficult for her to take shots. I thought she should have taken a couple more. Her feel was what we needed offensively."
UB entered the game averaging only 53.4 points a game and struggled offensively in falling behind at intermission, 27-23. But the Bulls’ superior depth wore down Niagara.
UB got a career-high 12 rebounds from sophomore forward Mariah Suchan and a career-high nine assists from sophomore guard Liisa Ups. Junior guard Camera Miley added eight points. UB freshman center Mirte Scheper, a 6-4 player from The Netherlands, showed some offensive flashes, with six points and five rebounds. She hit a nice, left-handed jump hook in the lane.
Niagara (1-8) was led by sophomore forward Kaylee Stroemple, who had 18 points.