Ohio State's Smith has quite a following for just a freshman

April 01, 1993|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

RICHMOND,VA. — RICHMOND, Va. -- Every few days during the winter, like clockwork, the population of the town of Logan, Ohio, drops sharply for a few hours.

About 300 to 500 residents make the 35-mile trip up Route 33 to Columbus to watch one of their own, Katie Smith, play basketball for Ohio State.

The Loganites don't make this trip occasionally or just for the big games, but for every Ohio State home women's basketball game, and a few of the road games, too.

If it sounds bizarre that a sizable chunk of a town of 39,000 would clear out a couple of times a week to watch a woman play basketball, imagine how bizarre it is for Smith, a 5-foot-10 freshman forward.

In just one year in a Buckeye uniform, Smith has become one of the most visible players in her sport, if not the most visible.

"Katie Smith is one of those players that is capable of making others around her so much better because she's able to do so many things," said Iowa coach Vivian Stringer, whose Hawkeyes will face Ohio State in the Final Four Saturday in Atlanta.

"She's the most complete player I've seen in a long time," Stringer said. "She truly is a franchise player. Few players are able to step in and make such a dramatic difference."

That's heady stuff for a baby-faced kid like Smith, but she's taking it in stride.

"It [the attention] is kind of weird," she said. "I don't think of it as being anything special. I'm just Katie, you know, from Logan. My friends, they hear people talking about me and they're like, 'It's just Katie.' "

Smith leads the Buckeyes (27-3) in scoring (18 ppg) and is second in rebounding (5.6 rpg). Sports Illustrated has named her national Freshman of the Year, and she is one of 45 players nominated to the 10-player Kodak All-America team to be named later this week.

""She has a lot of ability," said Ann Meyers, CBS basketball analyst and Hall of Famer from her playing days at UCLA. "She just knows the game. When you first see her, you don't think of her as this great player. She's got really thick thighs, but I've never seen anybody get off the ground quicker than she does. You have a tendency to compare her to Larry Bird."

Smith and Bird play a similar game: post-up moves mixed in with drives to the basket designed to draw contact and foul shots, blended with a deadly outside touch (Smith shoots 45 percent from three-point range).

"I take it to the hole," Smith said. "That's kind of been the key to my play. I'm a pretty good free throw shooter [82 percent] and if I get fouled, I make them most of the time. I just like to go inside."

Ohio State coach Nancy Darsch said: "Katie's strength, her size and her quickness make her a difficult person for many three [small forward] players to guard. She has a good combination of skills and when she's the aggressor and reading the defenses well, she's going to get the contact."

Smith made her national television debut in flashy fashion, scoring 35 points, including six three-pointers, in a 91-84 win over Virginia on Jan. 2 before a crowd of over 9,000 at St. John Arena.

Darsch said that game had important repercussions for Ohio State.

First, the win over Virginia, which had gone to three straight Final Fours, told the Buckeyes that they could play with the best in the nation. Ohio State defeated Virginia again, 75-73 in last week's East Regional final, to reach the national semifinals.

Second, crowd support swelled after that Jan. 2 game. Ohio State drew no fewer than 5,600 for any game the rest of the season and had two sellouts in 13,000-seat St. John Arena.

Third, Smith began attracting plenty of attention. After that win over Virginia, Smith sat at a table in the arena and signed an estimated 500 autographs for two hours.

The attention has its drawbacks. Smith and Darsch say they can hardly go out in Columbus, a city of more than 700,000, without being recognized and sometimes mobbed.

"It's definitely wild that after all these games at home, people are just waiting and sometimes we have to go out the back door," Smith said "I mean, my parents would be there and want to go to dinner. It's fun, but it can get a little tiring."

Because of the relative lack of attention the women's game gets, Smith understands that she has to play the role of spokeswoman for her team, and perhaps her sport.

"I really don't mind," she said. "We need people who carry themselves well who hopefully will do the right thing. I hope I'm doing the right thing with schoolwork and being the person I am and talking to little kids and making them feel good and want to be something."

It seems that Smith -- who plans to be a dentist like her father, John, an Ohio State graduate -- is always doing something right.

She was valedictorian and carried a perfect 4.0 grade average through high school, where she was state champion in the shot (( put and discus. She plans to qualify for the Big Ten track meet in both after the basketball season is over.

usually can do anything I get into," Smith said. "I like golf and I'd like to get into that when I get done all this."

Watch out, Nancy Lopez.

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