Pioneers point guard assists her way into the DU history books
January 24, 2012
By: Pat Rooney
Sometimes it’s all about who you know.
Erik Johnson, head coach of the University of Denver women’s basketball team, will never argue that point. Particularly when he considers the fortuitous recruitment of junior point guard Emiko Smith.
Smith recently etched her name in Pioneers lore by breaking the program’s all-time assists record, a mark she may eventually put out of reach with a full season-plus still remaining in her collegiate career.
Yet Johnson stumbled upon Smith, a Los Angeles native, by accident.
It was during the 2008–09 season, Johnson’s first at DU, when the coach heard from Steve Smith, Emiko Smith’s coach at Windward High School and a voice from his past. Coach Smith (no relation to Emiko) had been head coach at Division III Dominican University when Johnson was a player at nearby California-San Diego in the early 1990s. Over the years, the pair maintained a relationship.
Even though the Pioneers already had their point guard of the future in Jenny Vaughan, a Canadian national team member — and even though it was quite late in the recruiting process — Coach Smith nonetheless felt compelled to bend Johnson’s ear about his shifty point guard who was getting overlooked.
Fortunately for DU, Johnson listened.
“Emi was a player that I think was way, way under the radar,” Johnson says. “We knew she was a great passer. We knew she could pass; we knew she could handle the ball. We knew she was going to be solid. I wish I could take credit and say I knew this kid was going to be unbelievable.
“There are only like two coaches in the world who remember me when I was a player,” Johnson continues. “[Coach Smith] called me up and said, ‘EJ, I’ve known you for 20 years. I promise you, this is your point guard. There is a package in the mail with DVDs. Don’t call me back until you watch the DVDs.’”
As soon as Johnson received the package, he called in his staff—assistants Yvonne Hawkins, Shelley Sheetz and Lisa Faulkner—for an impromptu video session.
“We put the DVDs in and we watched for about 10 minutes,” Johnson says. “Shelley got up and said, ‘Yep, that’s her.’ Lisa got up and said, ‘Yep, that’s her.’ Me and Hawk just sat there and decided we ought to offer this kid a scholarship. We were fortunate that I listened to an old friend.”
As fate would have it, Vaughan left the program before Smith’s freshman season, and the California native has been a fixture in the Pioneers’ lineup ever since. During a home win against Troy on Dec. 28, Smith made history.
As she does so instinctively, Smith found the open teammate in freshman Jordan Johnston. And when Johnston knocked down the three-pointer, Smith earned assist No. 428, surpassing Heather Holter (1989–93) as the Pioneers’ all-time leader.
Smith was recognized at Magness Arena during the next timeout and again during the following home game against Arkansas-Little Rock on Dec. 31.
“It’s a huge honor and a huge accomplishment,” Smith says. “It’s definitely not only me. It’s all my coaches and teammates and past players. It’s a culmination of everything, and I hope to make it an even greater accomplishment and make an even higher mark for future DU point guards to reach.”
Smith has continued to improve, even as her role has evolved this season.
As a freshman and sophomore, Smith routinely piled up assists by simply passing the ball to a trio of 1,000-point scorers — Kaetlyn Murdoch, Britteni Rice and Brianna Culberson. This year, with Rice and Culberson gone and Smith tasked with providing additional offense, it was easy to foresee a dip in her assists total. That, however, has not been the case.
Smith averaged 5.0 assists as a freshman and improved to 5.8 assists a game last year as a sophomore. Heading into Wednesday’s home game against Sun Belt Conference rival Arkansas State, Smith has averaged 6.4 assists while recording a career-best scoring average of 8.8 points a game.
Even though Johnson has asked Smith to become more offense-minded, her increased forays into the lane have led to open looks for her teammates as frequently as they have led to baskets by Smith. She hopes to keep padding her assists total long enough to help DU win its first Sun Belt Conference tournament title in its final season in the league.
“As a point guard, you want to be a high-assists kid, but you also want to be a huge contributor to the team,” says Smith, who also is on pace to break her own single-season assists record. “I didn’t plan it to happen, but I’m glad it did. Being a point guard, you want to reach goals like that. To do it halfway through my junior year, it’s a great feeling.”