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A Rise in Elevation
Anthony Smith ESPN's Top 10 Play
Anthony Smith ESPN's Gym Gems
The flight of a bird is a graceful and harmonious sight, as its wings spread wide for ascent into the heavens. Those who enter the Vines Center, or any arena of the Flames' opposition, have been privileged to observe a similar soaring athletic display from junior Anthony Smith.
The Plano, Texas, native has increasingly wowed fans with his athleticism since his arrival on Liberty Mountain in the fall of 2005. After a stellar freshman campaign, where he averaged 9.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, while serving as the second offensive threat behind former Big South all-time leading scorer Larry Blair, Smith has shown increased productivity and flair.
Smith spent many long hours in the gym during the summer of 2006, and his work paid off. After hitting only 28.6 percent of his shots from three-point range, Smith became a viable threat from long range as a sophomore, nailing 39.3 percent, a 10.7 percent increase.
Despite the addition of more scoring options in 2007 with Dwight Brewington and Alex McLean, two transfers who aided Blair and Smith with scoring responsibilities, Smith was able to increase his average to 11.2 points per game, a 2.2-point increase from his freshman season. A large reason for the gain was that Smith shot 11.1 percent higher from the floor, despite a similar number of attempts during his sophomore season.
Evidence shows that Smith truly arrived on the scene on Jan. 2, 2007. What better place to do so than at No. 3 Florida, a team in the midst of its second-straight national championship season.
Smith tallied a game-high 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-3 from three-point range, while helping spearhead a guard attack which snatched 15 steals, the most allowed by Florida all season.
During the game against Florida, Smith was able to hit from outside, as well as penetrating the paint, resulting in two memorable dunks that silenced the near capacity crowd, inside the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. "Florida is big time and I had a really good game," said Smith after the match-up. "The dunks made it a bigger game for me, gave me momentum like no one could stop me and showed me that I could really play with those guys."
"Those guys" ended up being three first-round picks in the 2007 NBA Draft. Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah all were on the floor, witnessing Smith's acrobatic display that night.
Even though Liberty was an early exit from the 2007 Big South Championship, Smith concluded the season with his own little highlight film against the upstart VMI Keydets. Smith had such a game that one dunk made ESPN's Top 10 plays, while another dunk was featured on ESPN's College Game Night Gym Gems.
With the ESPN exposure in his back pocket, Smith's comfort zone was challenged when Ritchie McKay was announced as the seventh head coach in Liberty program history on March 26, 2007. But when McKay arrived on campus, Smith quickly acquired a fan of his game.
"Anthony has the talent to be a pro, and the more success he has at the collegiate level, the higher level he will reach professionally," said McKay.
Such words from a man of McKay's accomplishments speaks volumes, since in 11 years of head coaching, 22 of his players have played professionally, including seven who reached the NBA. So McKay knows a pro when he sees one.
The addition of McKay and his staff has played a significant role in Smith's further development. Through 17 games, Smith is connecting on 43.9 percent of his three-point attempts, a 4.6 percent increase from a year ago, while already attempting 14 more shots behind the arc, in 14 fewer games.
"Coach McKay and Coach [Brad] Soucie really worked with me during the summer," said Smith. "They helped me improve my shot and even tweaked it a bit, so I don't put the ball behind my head like I used to. Their tutelage has helped me a lot going into this season."
The new staff worked on Smith's skill set, increasing his confidence. "With confidence, you can accomplish anything," stated Smith. "The skill work I did with the staff during the offseason had a lot to do with my increase in confidence."
His self-assurance helped lift Liberty past the Niagara Purple Eagles on Dec. 1, when Smith's three-point bucket with 23 seconds left put the Flames ahead for good. "I had been preparing for that shot all offseason," commented Smith on his preseason preparation. The win became a quality victory for the Flames, due to Niagara's torrid start that has garnered AP Top 25 votes for the Purple Eagles as recently as mid-January.
The offseason work has helped Smith hit 53.3 percent from the floor, a 4.3 percent increase from last season and a 9.8 percent increase from his career number coming into this season.
McKay has relied on the 6-5, 215-pound guard to help the rebounding cause, resulting in higher numbers off the glass for Smith. Through 17 games, Smith is pulling down 4.6 rebounds a game, a 1.3 increase from last season and a 1.5 increase on his career average entering this year's campaign.
"Coach McKay had me start working with Coach Layer and the post men," said Smith. "They said I wasn't tough enough. Working with them has helped a lot."
Working down low helped Smith walk into the Patriot Center on Dec. 30 and notch a career-high 24 points against George Mason, while grabbing six rebounds. Smith was able to score from the outside, as well as getting into the paint off the dribble.
With all the effort Smith and company invested this offseason, one day sticks out in Smith's mind as a somber break from the grueling workouts. That was when Liberty founder and former chancellor Dr. Jerry Falwell passed away in May 2007. Serving as the lone men's basketball representative, Smith was bestowed the distinction as one of 10 student-athletes named as honorary pallbearers for the funeral.
"Dr. Falwell was a tremendous man who touched so many people's lives," commented Smith. "I was honored they would pick me to represent Dr. Falwell's love for athletics."
Despite the loss of the visionary, Smith still feels Dr. Falwell's presence around campus. "It was a devastating loss," stated Smith. "Everyone really misses him, but his spirit is breeding excellence. Everything is going great around here with all the Big South Championships we won in the fall and how smoothly his sons are running things. We all remember what he stood for and we are keeping that alive."
With the spirit of Dr. Falwell in his chest, Smith and his fellow teammates have their eye on a Big South Championship in what is shaping up to be a wide-open race.
"I think by being picked to finish sixth in the Big South, we feel disrespected," said Smith. "It shows that there are those out there who are not scared of us, and I think we are going to shock a lot of people."
So with added motivation, Smith and company will attempt to silence the critics and crash the Big South party. The invasion will give the Liberty faithful the euphoric sight of a rise to excellence and leading the way will be Anthony Smith, taking flight for another alley oop!
Vincent Briedis is an assistant athletics media relations director for Liberty University who covers men's basketball.