If the cliché holds true that a team takes on the persona of its coach, the women’s basketball program at Clemson is in for a crazy ride. Audra Smith arrived at Clemson from UAB in April with a fresh attitude and big personality that has already started to infect her team, on and off the court.
Smith enjoyed a successful playing career at Virginia from 1988-1992, where she played alongside Hall of Famer Dawn Staley, who is now the head coach at South Carolina. The two played in two NCAA Championships games, and reached the Final Four three times. The two actually roomed together, but, according to Smith: “Only for a semester. She watched too many scary movies and stayed up late.”
Staley has built a nationally ranked program down the street in Columbia, and Smith hopes to accomplish the same feat with her focus on defense.
Some coaches can fall victim to trying to do everything by themselves, but Smith has surrounded herself with a staff that she fully trusts to make calls on the fly in the best interest of the program, as they all share the same goals. This allows her to give her full energy to the team at all times.
“All I ask for is 100 percent on the court,” says the head coach. “Come to practice ready to practice and absorb as much as you can. I’m the type of coach that realizes that mistakes will happen. I’m concerned with working on correcting that mistake.”
This season, expect to see a team dead-set on defending for 40 minutes. But, also be on the lookout for Smith and her demonstrative behavior on the sideline, which can be entertaining in and of it self.
“High-energy might be an understatement,” said Smith. “I am a little bit over the top, which I can’t help. I’m a players’ coach, and when I’m on the sideline, I relive the playing days. I feel that it’s important for my players to be on the court able to look over and see that I am working for them and in the game with them. And literally sometimes I am, and I have been warned numerous occasions.”
And while she knows what to expect of herself on the sidelines, its what goes on between those lines that ultimately define a team. In the 2013-14 season, she has a strong mix of returners that have started a combined 205 games.
Included in that group are leading scorer Nikki Dixon and leading rebounder and shot-blocker, Quinyotta Pettaway.
Dixon was thrust into a tough situation early in her career, and has started all but one game in her first two seasons. She has responded, however, leading the Tigers in scoring in both seasons, including a 12.7 ppg average last season.
She also saw her shooting percentage jump from .366 to .402, and her free throw percentage leap to .742 from .593 as a frosh. She also ranks in the top-ten in school history at 2.2 steals per game throughout her career, and has set a goal to be named to the All-ACC Defensive team as a junior.
Smith’s defensive philosophy is right in line with what Dixon hopes to accomplish, among other things.
“She [Smith] is a crazy defensive coach,” Dixon said. “That has what has always stopped us. We’ve had a good offensive team, but fell short defensively. I don’t think we fully bought in our left our hearts out on the court. This year is going to be different. Coach Smith has been a blessing. She is committed to making us better players, better people. The thing that has been holding us back has been us.”
Another key to that will be Pettaway’s post defense. The senior ranks seventh in school history at 1.1 blocks per game for her career, and had 39 rejections a season ago. Smith wants that number to make a big step.
Pettaway also finished 2012-13 as one of the ACC’s top rebounders, finishing third behind 2013 ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas of Maryland, and Tianna Hawkins of Maryland. Pettaway’s 8.9 per game average was the best on record for a Tiger since 1991. Pettaway did so playing more than 33.1 minutes per game, a huge toll on a post player in the ACC.
But Pettaway, previously unaware that her 510 career rebounds already rank 22nd in school history, now has a new goal to enter to top-ten. If she averages the same as last season, she figures to crack that elite group easily. However, Smith is looking for her to take an even bigger jump from her eight double-doubles of a season ago.
In addition to those two, they’ll also likely get a big offensive boost form junior Kelly Gramlich, who is known for her shooting prowess that has her 63 three-pointers made in her first two seasons. Gramlich has been described as “lights-out” in the preseason, and her ability to hit shots in transition and to spread the floor will be key to the Tigers on the other end.
Chelsea Lindsay, a guard who started throughout her freshman season, is back after stepping away from the program for the second half of the 2012-13 season due to personal reasons. She will be able to push in transition and build continuity in the paces of play, and is arguably Clemson’s best on-ball defender.
The Tigers will also get help from Charmaine Tay, now a full year removed from a torn Achilles injury that slowed her for much of last season. Senior Chancie Dunn is back for her fourth season after graduating in August. Freshmen Paige Mosley and Abrea Harris will also add depth on both ends.
Clemson will man the post in the form of form Nyilah Jamison-Myers and Aneesah Daniels, a transfer from Alabama. Additionally, Sade Chatman, a freshman from Minnesota, will give the Tigers an athletic presence down low.
The sooner all of the players are able to buy in to Smith and her philosophy, the sooner the program can begin rebuilding to previously great heights.
Smith’s total-wellbeing approach will be key in the efforts, as she focuses on all of the areas not only on the floor, but also in the classroom and community.
“I love what I do, I have a strong passion for the game, and I am thrilled to be a part of these young women’s lives,” said Smith “I want to help make them not only the best basketball players they can be, but also the best people they can be. So when they leave here in four years, they can go out into the community and the workforce and be successful.”
That’s a personality and outlook worthy of attention from those both inside and outside the program, and Smith aims to change the way the Tigers operate in that order.