“When coach called my name, I knew it was my time to shine.”
TAMPA — As her shot fell through the net, Nalyssa Smith gave one emphatic clap and let out a yell before backpedaling down the court on defense.
Her jumper from 19 feet out — she takes pride in having range — put Baylor up by five with just over six minutes to play in the national championship game and helped quiet a furious Notre Dame run. The Bears held on to win their third national championship, 82-81.
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Smith had made big shots already this year. She had played in close games, in big moments, and gotten the job done. This was different. Not just because a championship was at stake and it answered yet another three from Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey just seconds before. But because Smith was the next one up after Third Team All-American Lauren Cox left the game with a devastating injury late in the third quarter.
The freshman Smith was thrust into a spot she maybe didn’t expect, but one that suited her perfectly. She doesn’t lack for confidence, and just as importantly, her coach has plenty of confidence in her.
“Nalyssa thinks she can score on every shot she shoots,” Kim Mulkey said. “She has ice water in her veins.”
You saw it from her collegiate debut back in November.
Smith, who came to Waco as a five-star recruit and was ranked 13th in her class according to ESPN, needed only 19 minutes in her first game to score 10 points and pull down nine rebounds off the bench. She only needed 17 minutes in her second game to go for 21-and-10.
There were some struggles along the way, but maybe we should have seen it coming that she would play a huge role for Baylor in the toughest moments of its biggest game of the season.
Cox suffered her injury with a minute and a half left in the third quarter and the Bears in control. They led by 14 and had been up comfortably since the game’s early minutes. It started to come apart after that as Mabrey heated up and Baylor had to deal with suddenly losing its star.
“We controlled the game from the start till the time [Cox] went off the floor,” Mulkey said. “We had to regroup.”
Smith made three baskets after Cox left the game, finishing with 14 points on 7-9 shooting. She may have shot for a high percentage, but every minute in the game was a struggle for the freshman before she fouled out in the final minutes.
Defensively, she had to guard Brianna Turner, Notre Dame’s senior who shot at a 64 percent clip this year.
“You knew they were going to expose her on the defensive end,” Mulkey said. “But she never let it rattle her. She came back. Every time she’d give up a basket, she’d make a basket.”
Smith has grown to expect that from herself and felt an even greater responsibility to help lift her team while their star sat on the bench wearing a brace and holding a pair of crutches.
“When coach called my name, I knew it was my time to shine,” Smith said. “It just gave me something to play for other than my family. It gave me motivation.”
Smith’s final stats this year put her at 8.4 points per game with 5.1 rebounds. That was enough to make her an exemplary “Sixth Man,” as Smith put it, but she is about to abandon that role. With Kalani Brown headed to the WNBA and Cox’s long-term status still unknown, Smith is going to have to do a whole lot more if Baylor wants to repeat in 2020.
Her coach outlined for her what needs to happen next.
“What he has really worked on, and we will continue to work with her, is on the defensive end,” Mulkey said. “You saw them expose her on screens tonight. She’ll get better at that.”
For Smith’s part, she spent the year learning behind Brown and Cox — not a bad pair of basketball role models, which is how Smith says she views them. Next year, if Cox is not ready by November, Smith will be the go-to option inside. She knows that, and said that while she enjoyed the role of Sixth Man, she’s ready for a bigger challenge.
“I’ve proven myself,” she said. “Now coach may give me a bigger spot.”
Of course it doesn’t get much bigger than it did on Sunday night.
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