CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Leaning against a Dunn Center hallway wall, clad in a black North Face jacket and sweatpants with a backpack over both shoulders, Shareef Smith displayed the same relaxed and unruffled nature he exuded on the court for the prior two hours.
He stood there, right shoulder on the wall, and offered a simple explanation for his sparkling scoring day.
“I just saw a couple shots go in, and I think coach noticed it too, since he ran a couple plays for me,” Smith said. “Once those started falling, I knew I would have a big game.”
Smith poured in 29 points on 11-of-16 shooting in an onslaught against Austin Peay, dump-trucking his previous high of 20. He confounded the Governors’ defense with his speed and slid right through their ball pressure. He drilled five 3-pointers. After each bucket, he retreated down the court, stone-faced with nary a scent of gratification.
He vetoed an Austin Peay blowout win on a day where EIU’s defense was no match for the Governors’ athleticism, spacing and multitude players who can drive and shoot. EIU lost 94-86 because it couldn’t generate stops, but scored its most points in regulation against a Division I team this season.
“Shareef gave us the business here,” Austin Peay coach Matt Figger said, a hint of relief detectable in his voice.
Moreover, Smith’s performance elevates the ceiling of EIU’s offense – if it’s anything he can come anywhere close to replicating with more frequency. His scoring had largely vanished after he scored 10 straight EIU points and hit a game-winner in EIU’s win over Austin Peay on Jan. 19. In his last five games before Saturday, he combined for nearly twice as many assists (23) as points (14) and found himself in foul trouble twice. Even after his outburst, he’s still averaging 9.2 points per game.
Saturday’s tour de force, though, reminded everyone of his unique traits. Smith brings the speed no one else on the roster boasts. He often uses it to drive and kick with occasional scores. Against Austin Peay, he turned on the ignition to scoot to the rim. And when presented with an open 3-pointer, he fired away. He said EIU placed little emphasis on featuring him as a scorer. Rather, it unfolded that way as the game went on and worked in this particular matchup given Austin Peay’s defensive identity that revolves around pressure and tight guarding.
“They do such a good job of guarding the wings and make it hard to complete any passes,” EIU coach Jay Spoonhour said. “You need to move the ball a couple times, but any guard that caught it, they needed to take it and see if you can get something done off the dribble. A lot of it was just his instincts.”
In EIU’s previous offensive explosion, someone else lit the fuse by making tough jumpers, creating his own shot or running off screens to hit 3-pointers. The Panthers have posted two of their best offensive games against Austin Peay by using completely different methods. Josiah Wallace and Mack Smith drilled tough jumper after tough jumper in the previous meeting before Shareef Smith took over late and canned a few mid-range shots. Those two are EIU’s most frequent initiators, Wallace because of his ability to use ball screens and create off the dribble, and Smith due to EIU’s abundant screening that creates open jumpers he hits at commendable rate.
It’s Shareef Smith, though, that possesses the blow-by ability to make EIU’s offense even harder to guard and give the Panthers’ shooters more space. He holds the key to causing more defensive indecision. Help on his drive, and there’s another player open he often finds. Play him one-on-one, and he’s more likely to score as he did Saturday.
“He didn’t have the ball in his hands as much the first time we played them as he did tonight,” Figger said. “But he did an unbelievable job of getting in the lane and he made us adjust. Early, he was dishing it off and he was making us have to hesitate on our rotations. Then we stopped rotating and he started scoring.”
Smith began nearly immediately, dashing from the wing for a pair of layups in the first three minutes, one with his right hand and another with his left. He made consecutive transition 3-pointers a few possessions later. He drew a foul on a drive. He capped the first half with a right-hand layup with five seconds left.
“It was kind of just there within our offense and knowing when to attack,” Smith said. “I saw open lanes and just took my shot when I had a chance.”
In the second half, he hit two straight 3-pointers in half-court sets to slice a 79-70 EIU deficit to three points. He committed a costly turnover, though, with 2:26 left and EIU trailing by four points when he kicked the ball out from under the hoop, expecting to hit Rade Kukobat. Instead, he found Austin Peay’s Steve Harris. It was his fifth turnover of the night, a reminder that the Governors’ pressure hit him too.
All told, Smith’s career day will go down as an element of EIU’s offense that frustrated an opponent and offered a reminder that when Smith operates as more than a passer and EIU’s sturdiest on-ball defender, the Panthers offense reaches a higher level.
“I think I can impact both ends of the floor,” he said.