Smith rewards Olivier’s scrutiny

Jamie Smith is the basketball player that has undoubtedly kept college coaches up late visualizing all the rebounds and instinctive plays and clutch shots they might have owned had they just looked harder at those darn highlight tapes.

She is the one few coaches saw and even fewer wanted, the one all but a handful missed on. She is your classic case of a terrific talent being underappreciated for the mere fact of going unnoticed.

“It was tough getting rejected over and over,” Smith said. “I sent so many of those tapes out.”

You can build a team around skilled players.

You build a program around a kid like Smith.

UNLV remains alive in the women’s portion of the Mountain West Conference Tournament because Brigham Young had no answer on the boards for a 6-foot freshman from Hawaii who rarely left the islands to play in high school and was within hours of choosing another college when Rebels coaches dialed her number for the first time.

Smith had 18 points and 15 rebounds and too-many-to-count critical plays in a 66-58 first-round win at the Thomas & Mack Center, where UNLV advances to play third-seeded Texas Christian at 7 tonight.

The odds say Kathy Olivier’s first season as UNLV’s coach will end a few hours later, but should the seeding play out and the Rebels walk off with a final record of 13-18, know that the cement has been poured and already is hardening for this program to again contend within the Mountain West.

Look. It can be done quickly. The No. 2 women’s seed and a probable NCAA Tournament team here is San Diego State, which three seasons ago went 3-24 overall and 0-16 in conference.

But then its coach (Beth Burns) began walking into the living rooms of high-profile recruits and refusing to leave until a commitment was obtained.

Burns has no equal among MWC coaches (men or women) when it comes to talking — she could convince you to pay above list price on a home and car today and make you feel good about it — but it’s obvious Olivier also can chat things up and isn’t afraid to wander into recruiting waters countless others avoid.

Example: The kid from Kailua who was this close to deciding between staying home for college or rebounding missed shots for Northern Arizona, who also took a recruiting trip to Utah, who sent those highlight tapes to pretty much every Division I program west of the Mississippi.

Who landed at UNLV as Olivier’s first recruit when the coach told her staff to find any unsigned talent available and was pointed in the direction of Smith by assistant Caitlin Collier.

“We only saw tape of her, but knew she was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Hawaii,” Olivier said. “We made some calls and went from there. She is very confident. She doesn’t get rattled. She’s relentless.”

First things first. Smith is really smart. She knows how to play, a skill often foolishly overlooked by coaches in favor of size and athleticism.

You don’t appear as slight as Smith and stand as the nation’s leading freshman rebounder with 283 today without having an effort level larger than any wave to hit the North Shore and instincts to match.

You don’t post 18 and 15 in your first conference tournament game without this kind of composure and ability: When senior center Shamela Hampton is called for an intentional foul with 8:46 remaining, it is Smith who pushes Hampton away to avoid a more severe penalty.

When the lead suddenly dwindles from 16 to three, it is Smith who grabs a rebound at one end of the court, then nails a 3-pointer from the baseline with 2:20 left.

When that lead is again just three with a minute remaining, it is Smith who rebounds the second of consecutive free-throw misses, is fouled and makes both foul shots.

Olivier can coach. You need only to watch a handful of possessions to know it. But she doesn’t yet have the type of players San Diego State and Utah and TCU do.

What she does have in building that base is the kind of start no one could have predicted when Collier mentioned she knew of a player in Hawaii.

Jamie Smith is that Christmas present you never imagined receiving. Unnoticed, underappreciated, a fantastic find.

“I honestly didn’t know what to expect my (first season),” said Smith, who earned conference Freshman of the Year honors. “I am blessed Coach Kathy took a risk with me.”

Fact: The only risk about Smith is the one so many coaches took in not paying attention.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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