One stone-cold leader

Conventional wisdom has long proposed that charge or block is the most difficult call in basketball.

But for UC Irvine senior Jade Smith-Willams, the toughest decision of her rollercoaster collegiate career was whether to leave or stay.

And while the essence of the 5-foot-7 point guard's game is her virtual lack of ego, it was the assertion of her own self-interests in deciding to transfer from Chico State to UC Irvine after her sophomore season that the first-team All-Big West Conference honoree considers her defining moment.

"The thing I'm most proud of, doesn't really have much to do with basketball," said Smith-Williams, who leads the Anteaters in points, assists, steals and minutes played heading into a Big West Conference Tournament semifinal clash at UC Davis tonight at 7. "It involves my transition, when I decided to transfer."

Smith-Williams chose Chico State, a Division II power, over Portland State out of San Leandro High, though she had great reluctance about its reputation as a party school, it's small-town feel and its modest academic profile.

"I didn't want to be at Chico," she said, though she helped the Wildcats go 52-11 under then-coach Molly Goodenbour. "I didn't like the atmosphere. I decided it was not the experience I wanted to have. But, I knew the people I would be hurting were my coach and my teammates, and I did not want to let them down."

In the end, Smith-Williams said she stuck with her gut, and sheepishly informed Goodenbour that she would be transferring, though she had no specific destination lined up.

"I was angry and sad," Goodenbour said of that fateful day when Smith-Williams broke the news in her office at Chico State. "I knew what we were losing. Jade [the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. Freshman of the Year who earned first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore] could have been a Division II All-American."

Ironically, it was mere weeks before Goodenbour, newly hired at UC Irvine, would call Smith-Williams to ask if they could rekindle their successful partnership.

"She asked me if I wouldn't mind playing at UCI and I said, 'I'm there,' " said Smith-Williams, a seriously driven, introspective, ultra-competitive leader who has been the linchpin in Goodenbour's rebuilding project that, this season, will end a run of seven straight losing campaigns.

UCI opened 11-4, its best start since the 1984-85 season, but a depleted roster helped induce struggles that produced a 15-14 regular-season mark, 7-9 in conference.

Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to Smith-Williams, the best point guard the program has had since Lisa Faulkner transferred away after the 2002-03 season.

Smith-Williams is averaging 14.9 points, 4.6 assists and 1.7 steals. She has started all 29 games and her 35 three-pointers rank second on the team. She is a tenacious defender and her ball-handling skills, as well as fearless penchant for penetration, make her the Anteaters' unquestioned offensive catalyst.

"She doesn't always see the floor or understand things like a point guard should," Goodenbour said. "But she has such strength of character and such a sense of purpose that she wills things to get done."

Smith-Williams, who often tucks the ball away while driving the lane, like a running back protecting against a fumble while going through a hole, said the player she most patterns her game after is Miami Heat guard Dwayne Wade.

"I feel like he just attacks the game so hard and so passionately," Smith-Williams said. "I just love the way he's able to go inside the paint so hard and finish so well."

Smith-Williams is hoping for a strong finish for the 'Eaters, and said she has mixed emotions about the impending end of her playing career.

"It's bitter-sweet" she said. "My first priority is focusing on helping this team go as far as we possibly can. But I am interested in learning about life and doing things that non-athletes do. Basketball is home, its comfort and its familiarity. But I'm excited to get to spend more time on my school work."

Smith-Williams plans to graduate in June with a degree in criminology. She has a minor in urban planning and public policy. She wants to take a year off, then go to law school.

Whenever her collegiate journey ends, Smith-Williams said she will look back with a sense of accomplishment, on and off the court.

"In the past, I would have put others before me and decided just to stay at Chico just for the sake of them, even though I knew I wasn't being true to myself by doing what was going to make me happy," she said. "So actually going through with my decision to transfer was a victory for me, for myself. It was something I would have never done before, but something that was a real accomplishment, like I actually overcame this internal battle."

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World