CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The moment was as endearing as any in college basketball last season.
Charlotte Smith, then the star freshman and potential dunker extraordinaire for the North Carolina women's team, had kept the Tar Heels in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinal game against top-ranked Virginia.
Smith's 18 points and nine rebounds in the first 30 minutes on inside power moves and feathery outside jumpers seemed to serve notice that she intended to be a force in the ACC for the next three years.
However, Smith, who leads 14th-ranked North Carolina into a crucial match with No. 12 Maryland today at 2 p.m. at Cole Field House, fouled out with 10 minutes left. It was the kind of offensive charging/blocking call that freshmen, even talented ones, hardly ever get.
Smith immediately burst into tears and sat on the bench with a towel over her head for the remainder of the game, as the Cavaliers pulled away from Tar Heels for the ACC championship.
The tears that day, as Smith explained, weren't of sadness, but of frustration.
"I was a little intimidated the first half and I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself," Smith said. "So, after a little while, I just had a little talk with myself and I just had to let myself know that I was going to have to take the ball to them and they just couldn't stop me. So, when I finally did start taking it to them, I fouled out."
There have been few regrets this season for Smith. After averaging 14.5 points and a team-leading 8.1 rebounds on the way to earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors, she has turned in a solid sophomore season.
Though her shooting percentage is down slightly (46 percent to 49 percent last season), Smith, a 6-foot forward, is scoring more (15.2), rebounding more (9.6, second-best in the ACC) and avoiding the trappings of early success.
"I did have a good freshman year, but I've tried to work harder so I wouldn't become complacent, because of the expectations of the people," said Smith. "If you do great your freshman year, they expect for you to keep becoming a better and better player, so I work hard every day in practice to achieve my goal of being a better and better player every year."
As a child, Smith had the advantage of learning the sport at the feet of one of college basketball's all-time greats: She is the niece of David Thompson, who led North Carolina State to a national championship and two ACC titles in three seasons in Raleigh.
"We used to go down to my grandmother's house and we'd play one-on-one and pickup games. Just seeing him play made me want to be a better player, and want to get more deeply involved with basketball," said Smith, who wasn't recruited by her uncle's alma mater but ended up at its chief rival.
She apparently has inherited some of Thompson's great leaping ability. She and teammate Sylvia Crawley have dunked at halftime of a North Carolina men's exhibition game and are waiting for the right opportunity to do so when it counts.
Said Smith: "I'm pretty sure it will happen, but I have to have confidence in myself and my ability."
Perhaps that will come with more victories, and she appears to be at the right place to get them. After winning just 10 of 56 league games in the previous four seasons with three straight last-place finishes, North Carolina bolted into third place last year with a 9-7 record, advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament and finished 22-9.
This season, the Tar Heels have taken last year's success and run with it to a 19-4 overall record and a 9-4 league mark, settling right behind front-running Virginia.
And Smith, who provides an inside balance to guard Tonya Sampson's outside game, has been a key to North Carolina's emergence near the top of the ACC standings, though she has had to make adjustments.
"It's [the season] really been challenging because I've had to take on new roles this year," Smith said. "I'm trying to take on a leadership role and it's kind of hard because I'm not really a leader."
Said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchel: "It [basketball] means so much to her and she's such a great competitor. She turned her ankle in the first half of the Wake Forest game [two weeks ago] and they had to carry her off. But she came back in the second half and didn't get subbed for. She's a great kid."