Hartford was the right choice for Smith

Hartford's Nikkia Smith, the former Montville High School standout, looks to make a pass in a game against Stony Brook on Jan. 12 at West Hartford.
Hartford's Nikkia Smith, the former Montville High School standout, looks to make a pass in a game against Stony Brook on Jan. 12 at West Hartford. University of Hartford photo

West Hartford - With 5.2 seconds left in the first half, the ball was Nikkia Smith's. Montville's Nikkia Smith. Her high school's all-time leading scorer with more than 1,400 career points. Wearing the scarlet and white of the University of Hartford for what is now her senior season.

Smith, in what has become her signature move, backed in, backed in, backed in, then spun and hit a fallaway shot from the top of the key, giving the Hawks a 26-19 lead at halftime Wednesday in an America East Conference matchup against the University of Binghamton.

"I told our team, 'The offense has to run through Nikkia,'" said Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti, the ex-UConn All-American. "Not that Nikkia has to score every time, but when teams double that move, that opens somebody up. And when they don't, Nikkia is shooting 50 percent.

"She grew into this role. She never was a primary option. She's worked hard. Her confidence is at an all-time high."

Smith scored 14 points on 7-for-13 shooting in the 65-50 victory over Binghamton, giving Hartford the lead for good in the first half at 14-13 on one of her fallaway shots, getting the roll. The Hawks are 15-8 overall, 6-4 in the America East.

Smith, a 6-foot-1 forward, has started the last nine games, averaging 12 points per game during that time and scoring in double figures in seven of those. In a win over New Hampshire on Jan. 23, she recorded her first career double-double, with 21 points and 12 rebounds.

In all, Smith came into the game averaging 10.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, putting her ninth in the conference in scoring. She was also sixth in the league in field goal percentage (.470) and second in free throw percentage (.828).

She's trying hard not to think about the end of her career, which is coming up fast.

"I remember freshman year being out on the track and being like, 'I don't want to run,'" Smith said with a smile. "… I'm going to be so sad to leave these girls."

Now, the 21-year-old Smith is all grown up.

An elementary education major, Smith is student teaching sixth-graders at the Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School in Hartford. A former business major, she's taken over the math portion of the class entirely, trying to find creative ways to make it fun.

Some of her students were at Wednesday's game, in fact, cheering her on.

"They were yelling, 'Great job, Miss Smith. They don't realize you have a first name," Smith said. "… The kids are challenging some days. They're at that age where they like to talk back. But I love seeing when a student finally understands something."

She's also taught at a basketball camp at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, something she asked Rizzotti about before she even committed to Hartford.

And Smith has been to Mexico and France with her team, as well as playing in two NCAA tournaments and a Women's National Invitation Tournament.

"You can see the way she deals with people, the way she deals with kids, she's patient, articulate, bright. She's one of those people that takes advantage of all the full opportunities offered to you," Rizzotti said. "She might have doubted herself early, but especially the last two years, she's conducted herself with a great sense of competence."

Smith has sculpted herself into a Division I athlete, too, calling herself, "pretty hefty when I came in." She shed 15 pounds, thanks to her work on the track and in the weight room and became more defined. She now has what she calls "diesel arms."

She played for the first three minutes of the game against Binghamton before Rizzotti sat her down. When she came back it was Smith who sparked the Hawks, getting a defensive rebound before hitting her first fallaway for the 14-13 lead. She hit another one from a little farther out to make it 19-13.

"I know what I can count on," Rizzotti said of Smith. "There are days she's going to miss shots and get pushed around, but on offense and defense, I know what I'm getting."

"I learned a ton about the game from the whole staff," said Smith, who will take a year off to travel before looking for grad schools in 2014. "(Rizzotti) never wants to settle. Like tonight, she told us we won, but we can do better. I learned that. … I think everyone (at home) believed I could do it (play in a Division I program), but I was nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I surprised myself."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Hartford's Nikkia Smith brings the basketball upcourt during a game against Stony Brook on Jan. 12 at West Hartford.
Hartford's Nikkia Smith brings the basketball upcourt during a game against Stony Brook on Jan. 12 at West Hartford. University of Hartford photo
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