Women’s Basketball Working to Overcome Loss of Smith
MANCHESTER, N.H. – When Saint Anselm College women's basketball head coach, DeAnn Craft, saw her star guard, senior Epiphany Smith (Springdale, Ark.) get knocked to the ground and not get back up after driving to the hoop for a layup with 7:46 left in their game against Saint Michael's College on Jan. 5, she knew it was serious.
"I knew immediately it was career ending," Craft recalls.
That's because Craft had been Smith's head coach for every single one of her collegiate games – for the past three years on the Hilltop, as well as Smith's freshman season when the pair was together at the University of Texas-Pan American. She knew Smith as well as anyone.
"She and I had the same thought process," Craft said. "She would be calling the same call I wanted us to run, simultaneously, because she's so far above her age and knowledge of how the game should be played. It's like having a second coach on the floor."
After leading the Broncos with 4.3 assists per game and ranking second at 10.0 points per game, Smith followed Craft to Saint Anselm, where she had an immediate impact in her sophomore season.
Smith was the only player Craft was able to bring in her first season after taking the job late in the spring. But despite being the only new face added to a collection of players already in place, Smith paced the Hawks with 14.3 ppg and 3.4 apg as she led them to a 10-win season, which was a six-win improvement over the previous season.
"Pif came in with a cast of players already set," Craft said. "She infused her spirit and her energy and really played to the strengths of the players who were in this program, instead of them to hers. That really began the resurgence."
Smith had already become the team's leader both on and off the court when she was responsible for mentoring and grooming a class of 11 freshmen during her junior year. "You have to have strong shoulders to lead that in this league," Craft said. "She set the tone and I thought their growth was remarkable as a team."
The squad made the playoffs for the first time in seven years after winning 11 games, including a huge road victory against eventual Northeast-10 Championship runner-up and 19-game winner, Franklin Pierce University. Smith led the team with 12.4 ppg, while six of the Hawks' top 10 leading scorers were freshmen.
Coming into this season, the outlook was bright as Smith and classmates Megan Howard (St. Paul, Minn.) and Sarah Craft (Lawrence, Kan.) were back to lead the team. The freshman class was a year older, as was junior Curran Leighton (Dover, N.H.), who was coming off a solid sophomore campaign. Craft was also able to add Division I transfer, Allie Jones (Wakefield, R.I.) to the mix in the offseason.
"We really felt like we had all the necessary parts for our whole to be very good this year," Craft said. "To see it play out as it did at the beginning – a stronger start than what I even thought. All our goals were materializing at such a quick pace for us."
The Hawks started the season 5-0 for the first time since 1996-97. As Craft had wanted, they were playing with a quicker tempo on offense, without sacrificing their stinginess on defense.
"That was Epiphany Smith's leadership," Craft said. "That had nothing to do with our coaching staff. That was how far her leadership had taken this program. It changed."
Just as quickly as it changed for the better, it changed for the worse. Smith was pouring in 16.7 ppg and the team had compiled a 9-4 record when the Purple Knights invaded Stoutenburgh Gymnasium and dealt the Hawks, not only a loss on the court, but a loss that would affect the rest of their season.
As Smith elevated for the layup, she was fouled in midair and landed awkwardly on her right knee as she fell to the ground. Just as Craft knew, it was serious. Smith had torn both her ACL and MCL, and was finished for both the season and her career.
"That wasn't supposed to be the last chapter of Epiphany Smith," Craft said. "Unlike others who get injured in this game – the normal athletic experience is you have a chance to come back, despite whatever injury you have. You rehab and put in the work, etc. That's probably the tragedy in all of this; a player who has given so much and played every possession since she's been here with such a spark – she doesn't get to have an opportunity for the ending that everyone who has been associated with our program and the Northeast-10 thought she deserved."
That's one of the toughest things about sports; injuries happen to best people at the worst times and it's often unexplainable. Now the Hawks must move on without Smith on the court and try to figure out how to earn a berth to the Northeast-10 tournament.
And while it's easy to chalk this up as a lost year with the sophomore nucleus making the future look bright, you won't find anyone associated with the program thinking along those lines. "I want their goal to be now," Craft said. "Not just for the future."
"I haven't felt that they're anything but excited for the future and the opportunity," Craft added. "The kids truly want to have success now. That's a testament to them. They're tough kids, but we're a work in progress."
The Hawks are headed in the right direction, however. After battling through the first handful of games without Smith, the squad is learning how to play without her.
"When it happened, we gave our kids four games to try and work through all of the emotion," Craft said. "We knew our timing wasn't going to be good, we knew we were going to have turnover issues. But we felt four games was enough to get over the emotion and lack of direction, but after that we were going to have to make a conscious effort to push through this."
Sophomore Tori Lehr (Cohasset, Mass.) echoed her coach's sentiments. "[Losing Smith] was a devastating blow and we all knew the consequences of what it would mean for us," Lehr said. "It took us three games to wrap our heads around it. It was just a huge mental blow. She was our safeguard."
Sophomore Kierra Moore (Albany, N.Y.), who took over Smith's starting point guard spot after the injury, agreed. "That was obviously a huge blow," Moore said. "[Smith] was always our safety net. Whenever we had a problem offensively and/or defensively, we knew she would get us out of it. We were kind of lost out there for a few games."
Howard added, "Coach even said the first three or four games, 'It's going to be tough. We're going to struggle and have ups and downs,' which we did. Everyone had doubts at first, but that's going to happen. You just have to get over it and move on; try and work together."
As a couple of Northeast-10 coaches told Craft after the injury, the Hawks didn't just lose their best player, they lost their point guard and their leading scorer. They lost, in effect, two starters."
But for those with the program, they know the team lost even more than that because of the intangibles Smith brought to the game.
"We called her 'Mini Maestro' because she wasn't giving her teammates the ball where they couldn't do something positive with it," Craft said. "She made the game easy."
Now the Hawks are trying to learn to play without their Mini Maestro – and learn quickly.
"It casts a light on how much Epiphany did for this program that never ends up in stats," Craft said. "We never had an out-of-bounds turnover until she was out. Prior to her injury, we had one run-out basket against us; now they're happening each game. She had been, for the past three years, our defensive safety. She had such maturity and understood the game so much and understood shot angles that when teams took shots, she was already in position. Now we're not controlling it very well. All parts of the game that no one had to worry about, now we all, collectively, have to worry about it."
"Our players always appreciated what she did for us," Craft continued. "Now they really realize what a special player she was for our program."
Howard, who has played alongside Smith for three years, knows what her teammate provided. "She was a player that knew everyone's position on the floor," Howard said. "She not only knew her own position, but everyone else's. She knew where we were all supposed to be on the floor at all times."
Once the reality set in that Smith was not walking back out on that court to help will them to wins, the Hawks began to move forward.
Lehr says the team fed off Smith's reaction and how she dealt with the injury. "We saw how strong she was being, so we felt like we had to move on and play," Lehr said. "We knew, collectively, we had to make a decision to accept it and move on."
Moore likes the team's progression since they have moved on, but knows there is work to be done. "At first we looked like chickens with our heads cut off," Moore said. "We were just running around. Without her, there were a lot of people lost – myself included. After lots of practice together, we started to get it. We're still not complete and we still need to grow as a team, but we're getting there."
Added Leighton, "We had to figure out how to react with one another and figure out how to play now that our main go-to person wasn't on the floor. Picking up the points she contributed has been tough, but I think we've had several different people step up in the right moments."
Howard says despite the original panic that set in, the Hawks have bounced back and put themselves in a position to make the postseason. "People were like, 'Oh my gosh, what are we doing to do now?' because [Smith] carried the team at times. We had to change the whole dynamic of our team. It wasn't just people playing new positions; it was a whole new offense.
"We came together and were like, 'We can do this; let's do this for her.' We started to have faith in each other and people stepped up. Since then we started winning games, shooting a high percentage and everyone's playing at a high level to their abilities and hopefully we can keep playing like that and get to the tournament."
Just because they lost Smith on the court, did not mean they needed to go through the rest of the season without her leadership and knowledge. Rather than on the court, however, it has come from the bench.
"She's been such a benefit," Craft said. "Players are reaching out to her during games for advice and are taking advantage of such a great basketball mind."
Moore, who had never played point guard until Smith went down, has especially made use of the extra coach. "I always go over to [Smith] and ask her what I'm doing wrong or what I can do better," Moore said. "She's kind of my advisor in that way, so that's nice."
"[Smith's] come to every practice and every game even though she knew she wasn't going to be able to play again," Howard said. "She still talks to the team and is still that leader we need her to be."
While it is important for the team to continue to get advice and leadership from Smith, the Hawks still have to perform out on the floor. To do that, they have had to evolve.
"We have to play low possession ball and shorten the court, defensively," Craft said. "Mistakes are more limited. We can't absorb giving teams big leads. We can't absorb six- or eight-point runs on us, like we did when we had Pif, because she, herself, could bring us back into games.
"We need five-person play on the floor, distributing the ball evenly, taking the best available shot," Craft continued. "We don't feel the ball has to go to one player and the team is on board with that. They're very unselfish and eager to move forward. They've always been tough kids, now we're seeing them become resilient that they themselves have a reason to fight through this."
The list doesn't end there.
"We're going to have to control tempo and be in games to win them; be in a lot of two- to four-point games," Craft said. "Double digit leads – that's not what we're talking about. We need to be in close games. That's the way we think we're going to have to win. We have to do a better job of playing truly 40 minutes. It's going to take all of them."
Craft recognizes her team's job isn't easy. "The change has been dramatic," Craft said. "I'm very proud of our players and the fact they've understood we've had to completely flip and become a low possession team."
Another natural change is the Hawks now have to be less transition oriented and more post oriented.
"Allie [Jones] needs surgery after the season; she's not playing healthy," Craft said. "If we get a few minutes out of her with Meg [Howard] and Tori [Lehr] – you can see, they have ability down there. Now we need to do a better job on the perimeter of getting them the ball in the right places. You can see when they get the ball, good things happen. That will also help us get to the free throw line more, which not only gives us offensive points, but lets us set our defense."
Lehr has really emerged since Smith went down. Prior to the injury, Lehr was chipping in 4.8 ppg. Since then, however, Lehr, who is in the midst of a career-best seven-game double-digit scoring streak, has become a focal point of the offense and is the team's leading scorer with 9.9 ppg. She is knocking down midrange jumper after midrange jumper en route to shooting a team-best 55.6 percent (55-99) over the last 13 games without Smith.
"That jump shot was always my shot in high school, but I probably lost it from lack of confidence when I got here."
Despite the way it looks on paper, Lehr insists she didn't wake up one morning and decide to help put the team on her back.
"It was more of a subconscious decision for everyone to do their job more than they had to before," Lehr said. "We realized how much we needed to, [to make up] for someone who was scoring 17 points a game. Coach talked to us about filling the void [Smith] left."
Moore, who has torn both her ACLs and was recruited as a 2-guard, has also helped fill that void in a big way.
Moore has seen her scoring jump from 2.7 ppg before losing Smith, to 4.9 ppg since, but maybe most impressive are her team-leading 2.5 assists per game over that span. Moore averaged just 0.8 apg prior to taking over the point guard spot.
"At first I was a little confused as to why I was a point guard, coming in as a 2 and never having played the 1 in my life," Moore said. "Now I just have to do what coach tells me and play my role. Whatever I can do to help my team, I do it."
A big part of her adjustment has been learning to play consistently with backcourt partner and classmate, Meg Morrissey (So. Kingstown, R.I.).
"We were kind of out of synch – she was used to playing Pif, we kind of both didn't want to handle the ball," Moore said. "Now we're getting used to if one is tired, the other will take the ball and we're playing off each other a little bit better."
"I'm so proud of the toughness Kierra Moore has shown us," Craft said. "She's been playing a lot of heavy minutes at the 1. She knows the game and doesn't get sped up. I'm just so proud of the way she's been able to handle this. No one has felt the absence [of Smith] more than Kierra Moore and Meg Morrissey. They always got to play alongside [Smith] and now…"
Morrissey has also stepped up her scoring – from 2.9 ppg playing with Smith, to 5.6 ppg since the injury.
"Meg Morrissey is learning how to become consistent," Craft said. That, without question, the play of Kierra Moore and Meg Morrissey – their consistency in the Assumption game, is evidence that they can and will be able to lead this team in the future.
The Hawks grabbed their first win without Smith in style, knocking off 20th-ranked Assumption College at home Jan. 14, 52-45. Morrissey matched her career high with 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting from the field and 4 of 5 shooting at the line, while Moore chipped in nine points on 3 of 4 shooting and was also 3-for-4 from deep, while adding four assists and three steals.
Different members of the team have also been stepping up in the leadership department.
"[Leadership] can't fall on one person's shoulders," Craft said. "Intellectually, you have to know the game and the different positions. Now they all have to just focus on their own positions. Collectively, they're just trying to pick each other up. Kierra [Moore] a little bit. Allie [Jones] has infused a new voice down low. [Sophomore] Briana [Jones] (White Plains, N.Y.) has become more vocal, helping gather us more, and Curran [Leighton], as well. [Megan] Howard is in the middle of her senior year, going through all this change. We need to rally around her and help her finish up strong. She has a lot on her plate."
Despite a full plate, Howard still feels like she can help lead the group.
"I found that being a senior, I'm one of usually the only seniors on the floor and they look up to me," Howard said. "It's important to keep everyone on the same page, whether it's offensively or defensively. Someone needs to be talking, keeping everyone on the same page and keeping everyone positive – that's important."
Part of the reason Howard can function at a high level, while dealing with so much, is that she's playing for more than herself.
"I remember when [the injury] first happened, I wasn't only sad for me, I was really sad for [Smith]," Howard said. "I know basketball is everything to her. We've been close friends and had a bond since she got here and you'd never wish that upon anyone. We had planned goals together, so it was really hard to see that happened and see her upset. I'm just trying to continue to carry on what we started for both of us."
Howard and the Hawks are on the doorstep of doing just that, but will need a strong finish to make the playoffs. And to finish strong, the team will need to rely on what has brought them this far without not only their best player, but their leader, point guard and leading scorer. They will need to trust in each other and play together for a full 40 minutes.
"Each person kind of has the idea that, 'I'm going to be stronger for this person, so that we can build off of each other,'" Lehr said. "And, really, that's what a team is."