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Lady Warrior puts '20 lessons to use

by Mitchell Gladstone | February 15, 2021 at 2:12 a.m.

Mia Smith watched from the sideline in Russellville last March as the final seconds of Little Rock Christian's season ran off the clock.

The Lady Warriors would not be back-to-back Class 5A state champions.

As she sat, Smith repeated two questions in her mind: "What could I have done? What could I have accomplished?"

She continued to ask herself those questions throughout the spring and summer, rewatching several of Little Rock Christian's games from last season, including that 51-43 loss to Greenwood.

Those questions did not come with answers. After transferring from eStem after her eighth-grade year, Smith was ineligible last season, rendering her to little more than a spectator.

Lady Warriors Coach Ronald Rogers knew that would be far from the case when his team returned to the court this season, once again with championship expectations.

"[Mia] sat there and watched the mistakes, and she and I have really talked about those things," Rogers said of Little Rock Christian's state semifinal defeat. "To be able to see it, smell it and feel the hurt after that game, it's carried over to this year -- not just for the players that were in the game, but to her as well."

In the 345 days since, the Lady Warriors have lost just once and have racked up eight victories of 30 or more points. Much of their dominance is attributed to an experienced squad led by senior Wynter Rogers, a West Virginia commitment, and three juniors.

So at a slender 5-6, it's understandable how Smith can get lost in the mix -- both literally and figuratively. It's why the sophomore point guard knew she had to find ways to stand out upon her arrival.

"I was new at the school, so I was trying to find my place and where I belonged," Smith said. "It definitely held me back [initially], but I realized that I was put there for a reason. I knew I had to make a name for myself, so I knew I had to work a lot harder in practice to challenge myself and [Yasmin Ott] to be better."

As a junior varsity player, Smith matched up daily with Ott, who has started eight of 10 games this season as a freshman at Georgetown. Smith experienced the type of play that would soon be expected from her as a lead guard at Little Rock Christian.

"That right there alone was a good tool for her, learning, using all our film sessions, and just learning the game and our system," Rogers said. "You could just see daily that she was grasping everything. She's like a sponge -- she was just soaking it all up and just was an unselfish player."

The environment that Smith has been thrown into this season helps the cause.

In Rogers, the Warriors have a dominant 21-point per game scorer who consistently draws the primary focus of opponents and who helped Little Rock Christian win a state title in 2019. They also have a pair of consistent long-range threats in juniors Sheridan Cross and Ashton Elley -- the two combine for another 19.5 points per game -- who open up driving lanes.

But Rogers needed Smith to take on an immediate leadership role. After the longtime Lady Warriors coach watched Smith evolve over the course of her freshman year, Rogers was confident she'd be up to the task.

"Her basketball IQ is very high," Rogers said of Smith. "For her to be a sophomore, I can only imagine by the time she's a senior. Very seldom do you see her get rattled ... she's savvy enough, smart enough to know what she needs to do in every situation."

Smith's teammates have watched their point guard's self-belief grow by the game.

"Mia's one of the hardest workers I know," Wynter Rogers said. "Once you put the work in -- and I've watched her put the work in -- it's easy to trust her with the ball even though she's so young."

Smith nonetheless feels the weight of a program that hopes to make another deep March run. That's not to mention following in the footsteps of both Ott and SMU's Reagan Bradley, an American Athletic Conference all-Freshman honoree last season and the 2019 All-Arkansas Preps girls player of the year.

Rather than just block it out, Smith leans on veteran teammates such as Wynter Rogers to excel in spite of the pressure.

"There's always going to be that little nervous feeling that you get when you're in the zone," Smith said "I just try to step back and think about the fact that [when I] get to these tough times, I just have to push through."

Both Smith and her coach expect she'll take another leap this offseason. With covid-19 limiting weight room access last summer, Smith wasn't able to develop as much physically going into her sophomore season as either would have preferred.

But with the Lady Warriors rolling into the playoffs -- they haven't lost since Dec. 11 -- the focus is on the only goal that matters right now: winning a state championship.

If that happens, expect the young point guard to remain in the spotlight.

"Mia's really got the potential to be a superstar," Wynter Rogers said. "She's learned how to run the team ... and I'm really proud of her."

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