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CHARLESTON — Last season seemed to be Jalisha Smith’s breakout season. As a junior, Smith started the first nine games of the season and averaged 10.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and had the best game of her career against Florida A&M on Nov. 22, 2016, with 19 points and 17 rebounds.

The breakout season was halted, though. Smith suffered an injury that forced her to missed the rest of the season. She was right at the threshold of applying for a medical redshirt and the NCAA granted the request, meaning Smith still had two seasons of basketball left for the Eastern Illinois women’s basketball team.

After performing well in nine games, Smith was expected to be a key piece to this season’s team in head coach Matt Bollant’s first season, but the season hasn’t gone as smooth as Smith has wanted.

It took her a few games to back into the swing of things on the court. Coming into Saturday’s game against SIU Edwardsville, Smith played in 28 games and started two. She was averaging 14.1 minutes per game and only 3.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. She had a season-high 9 points against Southeast Missouri State on Jan. 20 and a season-high eight rebounds against Saint Joseph’s on Nov. 25, 2017.

However, Smith seemed to return to her 2016-17 form in Saturday’s 76-72 overtime win against the Cougars.

Smith played 26 minutes and finished with her third career double-double with 15 points and 14 rebounds, both new season highs. Eleven of those points came in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, and she was 7-of-12 from the free-throw line in the game.

Saturday’s game was the first-ever CARE game for EIU, which raised money for cancer survivors in Coles County. The game had some extra meaning for Smith, which she said fueled her performance.

“I had a grandma who died of cancer and one that is battling cancer right now. It really had a big effect on the way I played,” said Smith, who was fighting back tears. “I know I can rebound, so that’s what I really focused on doing. I can get the basket, I kept driving and they fouled me every time. I’m just not trying to do the stuff I am not good at.”

Bollant said Smith’s 14 rebounds was the best performance any player has had on the boards this season, not just from a statistical standpoint.

Bollant thought Smith stepped up as a leader in Saturday’s game.

“It’s hard for the freshmen to lead well and they did with their play, but it’s just hard,” Bollant said. “If you look at the other teams, they’ve had a junior or senior step up and make the plays. Just to have an upperclassman step up and make those plays was good, and we need that in the future.”

Now Smith hopes this carries over to next season — not just her own performance, but the team’s performance to end the season.

Smith said this game proves how good EIU can be next season. SIUE is usually at the top of the OVC standings each season, and even with the loss, the Cougars finished 13-5 in the conference and earned a top-three seed in the OVC Tournament.

“I feel like this game shows that we can compete with anyone in this conference,” Smith said. “Next season, this conference, this season is ours, you can mark my words. It’s not going to be nothing like this season. Now that everybody knows their capabilities, we just showed it. It was a big win, I am happy we ended the season like this.”


Sports writer

Mike Monahan covers area sports for the JG-TC.

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