She had played in 89 games with 80 starts, including 46 in a row, before a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee forced point guard Amber Smith to miss all of Kentucky’s 2010-11 season.
Now she says she’s back ready to go and anxious to help the UK program continue the rise it has made the last two seasons.
She’s already ninth on UK’s career assists list with 333 and she averaged a career-best 9.2 points per game two seasons ago, when she had 161 assists and hit 81 percent at the foul line.
Smith, an integrated strategic communications major, was a four-year starter and team captain for Winter Haven (Fla.) High School and helped her team to a 119-8 overall record, including a Class AAAAA state title as a senior and AAAA title her junior season. She is the only player in school history to play in four state tournaments in her career. She picked UK¿over Miami, Vanderbilt and Clemson.
Smith talked about her injury, the upcoming season, coach Matthew Mitchell, the men’s basketball team and more during a recent interview.
Question: How is your knee, and how often do you think about that mid-summer injury that caused you to miss last season?
Smith: “It is feeling pretty good. I am just trying to get back to where I was before I¿got hurt, but I will be 100 percent before the season gets ready to go.¿I can’t be cautious and think about it or there’s a chance it will happen again. I am just working hard and trying to do what I¿did before to get stronger. I try not to be cautious because that is not me. Obviously, I¿think about it, but I try not to let that hold me back. I wouldn’t be the player I am if I was cautious and didn’t take chances.”
Question: Is there any way missing last season will make you a better player, or perhaps even a better person?
Smith: “My high school years I rarely lost. My first two years here, we lost a lot. That was the first time I¿had really faced adversity. Injury-wise, I had never been hurt except a rolled ankle. I¿got hurt the first time and grew and matured, but the second time I really grew because coach Mitchell would tell me to step outside my comfort zone when I was feeling sorry for myself because I was hurt. He helped me through this process to grow stronger.”
Question: Why did you originally decide to come from Florida to Kentucky?
Smith: “The coaching staff played a big part in that. Coach (Mickie) DeMoss was here and coming off a great year. I felt like they were on the rise and wanted to be part of that legacy of building this program and making it a recognized name. When I came here to visit, I just loved it. The people here love basketball and show great support.¿I didn’t want to go anywhere where they average 200 fans a game. I feel like the fans at Kentucky helped draw me in. I felt real comfortable with the girls here. They were not a big name at the time, but I wanted to go somewhere I¿could help become a big name instead of going somewhere that was already established.”
Question: What pressure, if any, is there on you this year?
Smith: “I don’t think there is any more pressure. I don’t know what people’s thoughts are. I am not worried about. I am just trying to lead my team to the Final Four in Denver. That’s our destination. There’s absolutely no pressure. We just have unfinished business. The coaching staff is not putting any pressure on me. I am just going to do what I¿do, and that’s lead this team.”
Question: Why have teams you have been part of always been so successful?
Smith: “I have had great mentors that I¿looked up to. My high school coach was a great coach and I had an assistant coach I learned a lot from. Here I¿have coach Mitchell and his assistants that have all been great. They all shape me and helped me be the leader I¿am today. I just respond to what they tell me. I could respond positive or negative. I could learn from it and really listen to it. I have tried to take pieces of how they all coached to make my game better. There is some stuff you listen to more. It’s not all good what coaches say. There will be criticism and you have to learn how to take it to get mentally stronger.”
Question: You have always excelled athletically, but how do you manage to be such a strong student as well?
Smith: “My mom never really had a problem. I was never that child that didn’t like to do work.¿I always got it done and my high school was very strict and disciplined on our grades. If we didn’t have good grades, we were going to run. That was motivation to not get bad grades. My high school set the tone for being disciplined off the court. You have to take care of business off the court to get on the court to perform. I just thank God for the opportunity to graduate and have my degree.
“It has helped me. What you learn on the court can help you off the court and vise versa. We try to work hard and be disciplined. If you are disciplined off the court, you will be disciplined on the court, too.”
Question: Did you enjoy being involved in a lot of charitable and community service events as well, since you have done everything from packing good for God’s Pantry BackPack program to volunteering at fall festivals and walkathons to visiting hospital patients?
Smith: “I definitely like helping people out. I am getting interviewed now, but I was giving back before that because I feel it is important to help everybody and put a smile on faces. That is just something I¿have always liked.”
Question: What do you do for fun?
Smith: “I am kind of a chill person.¿I just like to relax. I work so hard on the court, I just like to relax and hang out with my teammates because they are a bunch of fun. We need to build great relationships that carry to the court.”
Question: What do you wish more fans knew about you?
Smith: “One thing that fans would probably be surprised by is that I am very afraid of public speaking. I get very nervous. With interviews, I get pretty shy, especially if there is a camera around. Everybody says that can’t be right because I am so outgoing at times. I am very shy when it comes to interviews. I start sweating and get really scared.
“Somebody can tell me I did good on an interview and I will think I¿did terrible. I am always analyze stuff and wishing I¿had said this or that. I always second guess. Public speaking is one of my greatest fears.”
Question: What is your relationship with Matthew Mitchell like, and how good a coach is he?
Smith: “He is a very good coach. He just cares about us so much, and not just on the court, but off the court and I¿think that is very important. You have coaches that just care what you do on the court and that’s it. He cares about everything. He wants us to be honest and disciplined and hard working in our school work just as we are on the court. He just has a great personality. Very funny. He can be hard on you, but you have to learn how to take that and grow from it. I think being around him, I have matured and gotten mentally stronger. He’s very enthusiastic and brings a lot of energy and that’s a direct correlation to how I¿play. The energy he brings on the sideline,¿I try to bring that on the court. I want to be the coach on the court for him. I want our relationship, which it was my junior year, to be where I know what he wants and not even have to ask him. I am looking for it to be like that this year.”
Question: Are you excited about seeing coach Mitchell and his wife with a baby girl come August?
Smith: “It is going to be fun, be crazy. I am happy for him and Jenna.¿I can’t wait to see how the baby will be and see it grow up. We are all pretty excited. We feel like she is our child also. It will be great.”
Question: What do you think of John Calipari?
Smith: “He is a great coach. He is always supporting us. I see him at our games supporting us. He is a good guy and definitely a great coach because that shows.”
Question: Do you have. or have you had, much contact with any of Calipari’s players the last two years or so?
Smith: “I¿am pretty cool with Darius Miller. He is a good player. Brandon Knight, John Wall. They are good guys. I¿have not had classes with them, but they come to watch us play pickup games and we come to watch them play pickup games. We see them around the gym and will interact.
“Their success is good for us. It puts the name Kentucky out there. I think now when you say Kentucky basketball, men and women will come to your mind. It helps us and sure doesn’t hurt us to have them so successful.”
Question: How much did you enjoy watching Wall and Knight play?
Smith: “Their change of speed is phenomenal. They were different players. Brandon was a better shooter, but John did things well. With Brandon, I have definitely stolen some of his ballhandling workouts. I would watch him work out and see what I needed to do. I definitely learned a lot just watching them both and going to the games and practice. To see great point guards helps, and I¿paid attention to the little things they did.
“I thought about what they did to get where they are. That’s what I¿want to do and why I do the drills they were doing. I just want to be good like them.”
Question: What do you think of the spot reserved in the front window of the women’s basketball office for a national championship trophy?
Smith: “When I walk past it, it is an empty spot and represents unfinished business. The goal this year is to bring home a national championship. That is the piece that is missing in this program.¿I want to be a part of bringing that here. I want to put Kentucky on the national map. It hurts to see that empty spot, but I¿get motivation from that also. We can bring it and put that trophy there.
“It is going to happen.¿I am not going to say it won’t happen this year because I think it is. But it might happen this year and happen down the road, too. We are getting better players, better recruits. As long as we recruit players that want to work hard and think something will be given to them because it is not. Coach Mitchell does not treat anybody differently. You have to work hard.
“We have great players with great personalities. Some coaches just go for athletic ability, but our coaches go for how players will fit in the program and are they good people. That’s why we are going to win. They bring in great players and Kentucky will win a championship eventually, and I¿hope it is this year.”