The week leading up to Saturday's titanic tussle between Stanford and Oklahoma, there was an incessant chatter surrounding the Sooners' super-sized superstar freshman center Courtney Paris. At every turn, every question posed to the Cardinal turned on the subject of the acclaimed youngster. What does Candice Wiggins know about Paris from her experiences playing against and with her? How did Stanford deal with Wiggins as a rock star freshman last year, so as to compare how Oklahoma's players embraced their wunderkind this year? How can Brooke Smith match up with Paris on either end of the floor? Do Stanford's freshmen draw inspiration from Paris as a model for how they have to grow up and assert themselves in this game?
Paris, Paris, Paris. It felt like an episode of Access Hollywood, with the utter obsession and repetition of the name.
As I sat in the Maples Pavilion press room last Wednesday and watched Brooke Smith bombarded with questions on Courtney Paris, I wondered how she was handling the situation. This was a fourth-year collegiate player with great talent and success in her own right being peppered with questions on a freshman. Smith has never known a season in college where she has not traveled to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, yet she was assigned the "David" role to a "Goliath" who was in her first ever Big Dance. It was Courtney Paris' world, and Brooke Smith was lucky to be living in it.
I wanted to ask Smith how the chip felt on her shoulder, undoubtedly large and painful. The former McDonald's All-American possesses perhaps the most skilled and difficult to defend arsenal of offensive moves of any post player in women's college basketball, yet there was little to no attention paid to the threat she might pose in the game. It took Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer to interject that perspective into the press conference, though few people paid attention.
"But, you know, it's a challenge for Courtney too. I don't think guarding Brooke is any piece of cake," VanDerveer declared. "Brooke has a lot of different moves. Brooke runs the floor well."
I didn't ask Smith about the disparate attention and roles being handed to her and the freshman. I knew what the answer would be - polite, unassuming and non-controversial. That is Brooke Smith, for better or for worse. While her public persona may be laudable for its maturity and sportsmanship, there is something to be said for confidence, swagger and a healthy dose of nastiness heading into a big battle. Those attributes have not been at the core of the redshirt junior center. She has at times struggled in the biggest games, unable to score in the post or lacking physical toughness against teams that hit you in the mouth. After the big losses, Smith is the player at the podium who most visibly is fighting back tears.
Perhaps that is why Courtney Paris called Brooke Smith a "finesse" player leading up to the game. Though nuanced, there is an important difference between calling a 6'3" veteran a "finesse" rather than a "skilled" player. The former is akin to calling the a "soft" - lacking athletic talent and toughness to beat a physically gifted player straight up. Whether Paris meant her comment as a challenge, or if she was instead simply a freshman speaking honestly, there was a visible fire lit in Smith when they shared the same court in San Antonio on Saturday.
Smith not only outscored Paris by a wide margin, but she also nearly doubled the shooting percentage of her Oklahoma counterpart. At the end of the game, it was duly noted that Paris was the young woman sobbing on the court in defeat.
More than a big win, the Sweet 16 success for Brooke Smith was a big statement in her college career. The 35 points crushed her previous career high, but it was the fourth game this year where she had reached double digits in made field goals. What made the performance a landmark event for Smith was that she so visibly outplayed a player who will soon be judged as the most dominant post in women's basketball. Against lesser players who took a physical game at her, Smith has crumbled under pressure. The Tennessee game in December is a glaring example, with the Stanford center missing repeated point-blank shots inside the paint while she was challenged by a physical, talented and aggressive opponent.
Smith answered the bell against Oklahoma, with what is statistically the best performance by a Stanford women's basketball player in the school's esteemed NCAA Tournament history. Whatever happens tonight against LSU, Brooke Smith will finish this season judged as a wholly different player because of that performance. The chips were down, and the stakes were huge. She put down 14 of her 16 field goal attempts, with a dizzying array of scores. She went left; she went right. She crossed the lane with her sky hook. She gave the up-and-under. She hit the face-up jumper away from the basket.
And she hit it time after time after time.
Was that finesse? Or was that dominating display of offensive scoring that could not be stopped by Paris or any of her teammates? Whatever the Sooners might say, history will judge it as the latter.
But perhaps history books take time to be written. Only minutes after her 35-point masterpiece, Smith was immediately asked how she will handle LSU 6'6" center Sylvia Fowles. Sure, the big sophomore averages 16.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game while scoring at an awesome 61.1% from the field, but when will the public attitude toward Brooke Smith in these match-ups stop treating her like "the other center"?
At a minimum, the Lady Tigers learned a lesson watching Smith in person in San Antonio on Saturday.
"They play to their strengths. They get the ball inside to Brooke, who is a great post player who can create tough situations for our defense," says LSU senior and Player of the Year candidate Seimone Augustus. "And then you have Candice, who can come at you from all sides. She can pull up and shoot the three. They play to their strengths very well."
Imagine that - giving mention to Brooke Smith ahead of Candice Wiggins on the subject of the Cardinal.
LSU head coach Pokey Chatman yesterday gave more praise to the Stanford center:
"I'll start with her feet. She has great footwork. You can tell she has worked on that away from the practice time - the time she has put in. She's worked on her game as an individual. She knows how to play to her strengths: she faces up; she can put it on the floor; she's also a good passer; she can hit free-throws. She is just an all-around great player."
An "all-around great player." Not a "finesse player." That is the newfound identity of Brooke Smith, as she continues to evolve as a player on The Farm under Tara VanDerveer.
Smith may very well put forth a mediocre performance tonight against the #1-seeded Lady Tigers. How much can be left in her tank after a career-defining game like she produced 48 hours ago? Moreover, this game possesses a much different complexion than the Oklahoma affair, where Stanford was able to dedicate a double-team to Paris as the singular talent on the opposing team. Fowles, though supremely gifted as an athlete and competitor, is the second best player for LSU. Augustus has changed the landscape of the SEC in her four years as a 6'1" guard who can athletically dominate opponents and score inside and outside at a 57% clip.
Stanford and Smith may very well lose tonight, but the nation watched on Saturday as the unassuming center took center stage and dominated in her team's biggest game of the year. She won't be the one to say so, but to those who overlooked her before, stick that in your pipe and smoke it. Brooke Smith is a force to be reckoned with.
"There is no other post player in the country I would want on my team," Wiggins says of Smith. "Now the whole nation will get to see what we see in practice, and that's how great she is."
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