For Smith, half the fun is getting here

Updated: September 12, 2006, 10:55 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

DETROIT -- You probably saw how it ended, with Katie Smith taking the final shot -- the ole nail in the coffin, as they say -- for the Detroit Shock on Saturday. Sacramento made that last expected push, cutting the Shock's lead to three points with 33.2 seconds to play. Too early to celebrate, even though the 19,671 here at Joe Louis Arena were already doing that.

Katie Smith
Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesAfter her 17-foot jumper to extend Detroit's lead to five with 14 seconds left, Katie Smith knew it was "Game over."

Smith wasn't going to make that mistake. One more basket, and this rather remarkable Detroit comeback in the WNBA Finals was complete.

Who did you think was going to make that basket?

Remember, it was just more than a week ago that the Shock got blown out on its home court in the Finals opener. Last Sunday, Detroit went down 2-1 in the series after getting pounded in Sacramento.

At that juncture, Detroit really did look finished. The Shock hadn't come close to beating the Monarchs in Sacramento in the 2005 or 2006 regular-season meetings, and now had lost big in a playoff game at Arco Arena. What was going to change for Game 4?

Well, everything. Led by Smith's 22 points, Detroit won and took the series back to the Motor City for a decisive fifth game.

So, it was the final minute Saturday, and with just one more basket, Detroit really could celebrate. Of course, it was Smith who made it with 14.8 seconds left, a 17-footer after she spun around to get loose from her defender. A shot that isn't easy, and yet Smith has made it look that way so many times.

"To me, that was like, 'Game over,' " Smith said. "You do it in pickup, you do it in practice, you do it in games. But in a game like this, it felt good to knock down shots when it was really needed."

Smith scored the Shock's last six points of the game. She snared the final rebound, with 3.5 seconds left. She tossed the ball in celebration, as Detroit won 80-75. Yeah, that's how it ended. You all saw that.

Let me tell you how it started.

Smith was the last Shock player still in the locker room about an hour before the game. At 32, she has to go through her routine of stretching and ice. In this unfamiliar locker room -- remember, home is the Palace of Auburn Hills -- Smith had an open letter sitting there at her little cubby hole, and it thanked her for everything she has done to help the growth of women's basketball.

SMITH IN THE WNBA FINALS
GAME PTS FG 3FG
Game 1 21 7-15 4-6
Game 2 16 6-13 2-6
Game 3 9 3-9 0-2
Game 4 22 8-17 3-8
Game 5 17 7-12 2-4
Totals 85
17.0
31-66
47 %
11-26
42 %

Smith chatted for a little while before going out to warm up. She was asked what nerves there still are for a veteran before a big game. She said they are only the "good" ones.

"I still do get them, from the sense of the energy, the excitement of wanting to perform," she said. "The nerves as in being scared? No, not those. It's just being excited about what this means. You're kind of like a little kid. It's fun."

Of course, Smith was a kid -- just 18 years old -- the first time she played for a major championship in basketball. That was in 1993 in Atlanta, when she led Ohio State to the NCAA title game. Sheryl Swoopes, the Texas Tech senior, scored a phenomenal 47 points that day and her team won the championship. Smith scored 28, and that was the highest peak her Buckeyes would ever reach.

"I was probably oblivious to everything then," Smith said, smiling at the memory. "I was a freshman and we had a bunch of seniors. We'd made a huge run, and that was more unexpected then.

"Here today, with the talent we have in Detroit, it's almost like if you don't do well, you haven't used what you've been given. But [1993] was fun; we probably were the underdogs. The fans who followed us were awesome. That whole ride was a blast, something that you look back on and enjoy."

Smith was a native Ohio kid very heavily recruited by Virginia, which was in the process of making three consecutive Final Four appearances when the Cavaliers were pursuing her. Smith was tempted to go to Charlottesville, but she decided to stay "home."

"One of the reasons I went to Ohio State was to keep that connection to that area," she said. "And it's paid off, because you have a support system your whole life and whole career. They know where you came from and what you're about. You're one of theirs."

Indeed, Smith has been "theirs" in Ohio for a long time now. During the ABL's short but important life, Smith won two titles with the Columbus Quest. Then she went to Minnesota in the WNBA, where she played six and a half seasons for the Lynx but made the playoffs only once.

Detroit traded Chandi Jones and Stacey Thomas to get Smith at the end of July 2005. Think that move paid off?

For this season, coach Bill Laimbeer asked a lot from Smith. Laimbeer wanted her to drop 20 pounds to help guarantee she'd be able to play a ton of minutes every game. She did that. He wanted her to become a point guard. She did that.

"Consistency -- she has that every game, every practice," Laimbeer said. "She's feisty at times, no question about it. She'll speak her mind, and we'll listen and we'll take it. But she's fun to be around."

Laimbeer wanted Smith in Detroit because of her scoring ability and her leadership. He was surprised, though, that she has been so effective and dependable on defense.

So here it was, the season down to one game. On top of everything else, Smith has been the most eloquent and insightful spokeswoman for this Detroit team. Another question for her before she leaves the locker room: Is she at her best in the biggest moments?

"Let's hope so," she said. "I have confidence in myself and my team to be able to make plays and handle the emotions and ups and downs, the distractions.

"I try to prepare myself mentally and physically for what's coming. It is another game, in a way. Yes, there's a WNBA championship on the line, but it is 40 minutes of basketball. What you're doing is the same thing you've been doing all year. You just go out and play."

And that's what Smith did Saturday: 17 points, six assists, two rebounds. Detroit's Deanna Nolan was named the Finals MVP, and that was a fine choice. But my vote went to Smith.

She played 36 minutes on Saturday, and admitted with a laugh, "I was tired at the end. But, I'll tell you what. In two days, I'll be ready to go again. It's time to go win some more ball games and win another championship."

Yes, now it's onto Brazil and the World Championship, where she and Detroit teammate Cheryl Ford will join the U.S. team. Smith, who has won gold with Team USA in two Olympics and two world championships, leaves Monday for South America.

Oh, and there was one more thing Smith talked about in those moments before going out on the court Saturday afternoon. She reflected on how lucky she was.

"I've come along at a great time for women's athletics. I came out of college, and two [pro] leagues had started," she said. "The publicity I got as a freshman, that was the first time it really hit me what women's basketball could be. It has grown immensely. You feel like you're a part of it, but you also want to continue the legacy of all the people before you.

"Like Teresa Edwards … I had a chance to play with her. She's one of the best ever. It's important to never forget where this game came from. To give the mindset to the younger generation: Don't take it for granted. Don't just expect this is going to be here forever and it will keep growing and growing. You have to keep this thing moving."

Who has done that better than Katie Smith?

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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