For about 10 minutes during the first half of Winthrop’s college basketball game Saturday against Prairie View A&M, it looked like the floor on the Eagles’ offensive end of the court was made out of porridge.
A nearly 6-minute Eagles scoring drought and a slew of turnovers helped the visiting Panthers open a 17-6 lead. But Winthrop’s mighty mite senior guard Nych Smith jumped the Eagles’ offensive motor, scoring nine points during a 12-2 run that erased the visitors’ lead.
Prairie View shot 21 more field goal attempts than Winthrop (8-4) in the first half, in part because of a plus-nine turnover margin advantage and a plus-eight offensive rebounding advantage. But the hosts turned it around in the second half, starting the period with an 8-0 run and never looking back on the way to a 76-62 win.
“Nych is a one-man run. He’s a guy that can heat up really fast,” said Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey. “Once he gets in a flow, in a rhythm, he’s as good as I’ve been around.”
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Smith only played in the first half. He landed funny on his foot just before halftime and spent part of the second half in the training room, and later at the end of the bench with his shoe off. He’d already made his most important contribution by then.
The nine-point burst in the first half -- two free throws, a pull-up jumper, followed immediately by a steal, layup and foul drawn, before a one-handed putback of his own miss -- kicked a flat Winthrop team in the pants and got them moving.
“He had some big buckets,” said senior Bjorn Broman, who led Winthrop with 17 points. “That’s Nych, though. Other teams go on a run, he knows how to end it. Reminds us of Keon Johnson a little bit.”
‘He makes the whole team better’
Smith had 18 assists (and just four turnovers) in the three games prior to Saturday, all Winthrop wins. He darts into the lane, draws defenders, then sprays passes to the corners where shooters are waiting to catch and fire. Or he dumps off to Josh Ferguson or Jermaine Ukaegbu for an easy flush at the rim.
The 5-foot-10 Memphis native with calf muscles that pop off his legs leads Winthrop in scoring at almost 17 points per game. Headed into Saturday, Smith was top-five in the Big South in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (5.7) and he’s hit 82 percent of his foul shots so far. His trademark leg kick on 3-pointers might look funny and make a shooting purist cringe, but he’s making close to 40 percent. Those 3-pointers are crucial, because they pull defenders out of the lane and open up the floor for Smith, and Winthrop’s offense.
His form prompts the question: would Winthrop have made the NCAA Tournament last March if Smith hadn’t missed the second half of the 2017-18 season because he was academically ineligible?
Considering the way Smith is playing right now, it’s a fair question.
“Losing Nych, that was a tough hit for us,” said Broman. “But that’s last year. We’ve got him this year, we’re glad to have him, he makes the whole team better.”
Smith is enjoying his basketball right now, but he hasn’t made life easy for himself at Winthrop. When he arrived in Rock Hill in 2017, he still wasn’t a diligent defender even after two years of college basketball. His playing time suffered.
“He was frustrated because he wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season,” said Smith’s uncle, Rodney Newsom, a former college basketball player at Memphis. “And I just told him, ‘you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to work harder.’ A lot of his life, his high school career, everything came so easy for him so he slacked defensively.”
“Nych has to work at it more,” Kelsey said about Smith’s defense. “He has more offensive prowess and juice, but the defensive part comes harder to him. It’s like math for me.”
Smith took his uncle and coaches’ advice and was playing better by December, 2017. He started the Eagles’ game against VCU, but his minutes suddenly cratered the next two games and the reason why revealed itself before the Liberty game on Jan. 9. A few innocuous sentences on a piece of paper placed in front of every seat on media row at Winthrop Coliseum told of Smith’s second semester academic ineligibility.
Back in Memphis, Newsom found out via the online stream of the Winthrop-Liberty game. He didn’t see his nephew so he called his brother, who told him Nych was ineligible.
“I wanted to put my foot in his a**,” said Newsom.
Winthrop went 12-5 in the games that Smith missed, but they lost three of the final four, including the season-ender to Radford in the Big South semifinals. The Eagles leaned heavily on star senior Xavier Cooks for offensive creativity, and Smith’s ability to manufacture points for himself or scoring opportunities for others was sorely missed.
Smith drove to Asheville with his dad and watched the Eagles lose to Radford. That burrowed into his mind and he remained in Rock Hill in June when the rest of the team headed home for summer break. Smith took seven classes in June and July -- no grades lower than a B -- and worked endlessly on his game and his conditioning.
“I just wanted to show everybody that I still had more to give and that you could trust me,” said Smith. “The players have a restored trust in me, the coaching staff, it’s big.”
While Smith was in Rock Hill over the summer he missed the first few months of his daughter’s life. Jordyn -- she’s got a Y in her name like her dad -- was born May 14 and only increased Smith’s desire to get his life in order.
“I’ve got people depending on me,” said Smith, “and that just makes me go that much harder.”
But before this season started, Smith was in the news again for the wrong reason, when he and two other teammates were ticketed for marijuana possession. The legal implications were minimal and in an undesirable way it further strengthened Smith’s conditioning. The three would take turns, one running at 5 a.m., one at 6 a.m. and one at 7 a.m.
“Coach said we were gonna do it until he got tired,” said Smith. “Took him a couple of weeks.”
Kelsey was frustrated with the slip-up. But it happens, especially for college-aged kids that are learning to become men. Kelsey attributed Smith’s success since the summer to assistant coach Jayson Gee’s arrival. It’s not clear if Smith would have had a future at Winthrop without Gee showing up during the offseason.
“Jayson Gee has saved that kid’s life,” said Kelsey. “He’s closer to the Lord than he’s ever been. If Jayson wasn’t here, mark it down right now, he wouldn’t be eligible. He’s got his mind right, Nych’s had a bunch of adversity and things that have been dealt to him in private life and to see how he’s responded and his mentality, and how he’s improved as a man is one of the great stories of our season.”
Smith’s life progress hasn’t been as obvious as what’s happening on the court. He had six first half assists against Southern Illinois as the Eagles jumped out to a 49-34 halftime lead en route to a quality road win over the Salukis on Dec. 22. Smith finished the game with 19 points and seven assists, four of those directly to Ferguson. Offensively, Smith is an almost perfect point guard for the current Winthrop team.
“It’s a match made in heaven,” he said with a wide grin.
But offense has always come easily to Smith. It’s the less fun stuff -- defending a gap in Winthrop’s pack line, turning in a paper, and, once the season’s over, changing diapers -- where Smith has to really focus. Saturday’s game against Prairie View A&M tipped off and within several seconds Kelsey shouted “lock in Nych! Lock in Nych!”
He’s trying, really trying.