Northern Colorado women’s basketball coach Jenny Huth had a very easy answer — that just happened to include a comparison to an all-time great — when asked about the confidence she gets from having Savannah Smith on her team.
“It’s like Diana Taurasi when she was winning national championships,” Huth said. “Everybody kept interviewing Geno Auriemma, saying, what’s the key, what’s the key? And he goes, I have Diana Taurasi and you don’t. And I feel the same way, I have Savannah Smith and you don’t.”
For three years, that’s been the prevailing feeling around Greeley, like a safety blanket in the form of a 5-foot-6 point guard who can score from literally anywhere.
On Monday, the redshirt senior was named to her third consecutive All-Big Sky first team after a regular season in which she averaged 23.6 points, first in the conference and fifth in the entire country.
She was also top-five in the Big Sky in assists and steals.
Smith’s game is defined by how she makes immense responsibility look easy. She handles the ball on every possession for the Bears and shoots more than anyone else in the country — she’s second in field-goal attempts this year behind Arizona’s Aari McDonald — but she never seems troubled by the defensive attention.
In pressure, she finds light, stepping back for a 3 on one possession, dropping the ball off perfectly to a rolling post player on another, and never, ever looking frustrated or out of control.
In the pick-and-roll, she’ll speed up here, slow down there, and somehow, always, get to the exact spot she wants, a masterclass in making subtle adjustments and controlling the game.
“She keeps you off balance because she has deep range,” Huth said. “If you guard her too tight, she hesitates, then goes around you. If you try to cheat the screen, she rejects the screen. But she makes the right read nearly every single time.”
In her junior year, Smith was named the Big Sky MVP, averaging 18.5 points per game and leading Northern Colorado to one of the best seasons in Big Sky women’s history. She scored 34 points in the tournament championship game to turn a highly-anticipated matchup with Idaho into a blowout, sending the Bears into the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed.
This year, she lost out on back-to-back conference MVPs only because Idaho’s Mikayla Ferenz, the conference’s all-time leading scorer, averaged 22.5 points per game and led the Vandals to the regular-season conference championship, setting up a potential explosive rematch with Smith and the No. 2 seeded Bears in the tournament this year.
No matter what happens, Smith will leave Northern Colorado as the program’s all-time leading scorer and one of the most feared players in the history of the Big Sky Conference.
And if Huth’s Taurasi comparison isn’t convincing enough evidence of that, try on this one, courtesy of Montana coach Shannon Schweyen.
“She’s like the Steph Curry of the Big Sky,” Schweyen said. “Seriously, the volume she shoots it at, the way she can put you on a string in the pick and roll, that step-back that she hits so often, her fearlessness…she’s one of the best players I’ve seen in this league in a long time, and maybe ever.”
It might be a little surprising that a player who draws those comparisons is a little bit uncomfortable with them, but Smith is — at least, off the court.
Even when comparing her own style of play to Curry’s, Smith laughed nervously.
When asked about a recent streak of scoring 30 or more points in five straight games, she deflected praise over to her teammates.
“I really have to credit my team and my coaches for that little streak,” Smith said. “It’s really easy to do that when you have great teammates that surround you and get you the ball, and just play well off of you, it just makes it so much easier. And then the coaches who allow you to be able to play like that and play fast and play like I know how to play, that just makes it super easy.”
Off the court, Smith is a graphic design student who loves to draw and paint her nails — a “girly-girl,” in Huth’s words.
On the court, though, she’s a competitive killer. In the championship game against Idaho last year, the Vandals took a one-point lead midway through the second quarter on a layup by Ferenz.
Smith followed by assisting back-to-back buckets, a 3 by Tiarna Clarke and a layup by Abby Kain, to take the lead back.
Then she really got going.
After a Ferenz turnover, she hit a 3, then stole the ball from Allison Kirby and pulled up in transition to splash another, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead in under two minutes.
Later in the quarter, she assisted on back-to-back 3-pointers by Alexis Chapman.
All told, Northern Colorado closed the quarter on a 21-9 run to turn a close game into a blowout. Smith scored or assisted 19 of the Bears’ 21 points in the run.
“I just remember us all talking in the locker room before the game about how this was our chance to come out and win this game, and really just play hard for 40 minutes and give it all we got,” Smith said. “I just remember being dead tired in the middle of the game, but just thinking I have to push for 20 more minutes and get to where we want to be.”
She comes by those killer instincts honestly.
As a kid growing up in Fort Collins, an hour north of Denver, she got to watch Becky Hammon play for Colorado State — but, when high school came around, she didn’t get recruited as hard as the girls from the metro area do in part to suffering a knee injury.
Smith was first-team all-state and led her classification in scoring as a senior, but the local team, Colorado State, didn’t come calling. Neither did any of the other Division-I schools in the state — except for Northern Colorado, just a few miles up the road.
It didn’t take Smith long to choose the Bears over the other interest she had from schools like Denver University, Metro State and Cal Poly.
In fact, she didn’t even take visits anywhere else.
The experience, though, did put a little bit of a chip on her shoulder.
“Looking back, I think I was a little discouraged by the lack of interest,” Smith said. “It’s hard coming out of northern Colorado, especially playing at the high school that I did. A lot of girls from the Denver area get recruited, so it was a little bit harder for me. I was so appreciative of [Northern Colorado’s] support and their confidence in me as a player.”
She redshirted her freshman year while recovering from knee surgery.
The next year, she broke into the lineup, playing 21 minutes a game and scoring in double figures in nearly half of the team’s 29 games, but the Bears, who had gone to the conference tournament final the year before, slumped to 13-16.
It was the next season when things came together for both Smith and her team — and it was definitely “her team” by that point.
She averaged 15.9 points, fourth in the conference, and picked up her first all-Big Sky nod as the Bears rebounded to 22-8 before losing a heartbreaker to Idaho State, 60-59, in their first game at the Big Sky tournament.
That loss stayed with Smith through the offseason, and it made the eventual breakthrough that much sweeter.
In her tour-de-force junior year, the Bears went 26-7, beat a top 25 team in DePaul, lost just three conference games all year, and, as mentioned before, stomped Idaho in the conference championship game to send seniors Savannah Scott and Kianna Williams off with a success.
“It was so much fun,” Smith said. “I remember playing with [Scott] and [Williams], just playing with them and having their knowledge and skill on the court was something that I will never forget. They were great players, really our whole team, we had a great bunch of different assets to the team. Different players who could do different things, which was really cool.”
With that mission accomplished, this season has been about making history for Smith, even if she won’t admit it.
Aside from the potential individual records, she could lead Northern Colorado to be the first Big Sky team to make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since Montana in 2008 and 2009. She also opened eyes by scoring 40 against the Lady Griz, the first player ever to reach that historic mark.
No non-Lady Griz team has gone dancing since Weber State in 2002 and 2003.
If the Bears are to break that streak this year, it will be because they put the ball in Smith’s hands and get out of the way.
After all, when you have a player like her and the other teams don’t, what else is there left to do?
Even, sometimes, if you’re the coach.
“I’m just really proud to have spent this time as her coach, it’s been an honor and a privilege,” Huth said. “Some games I just kind of shake my head and I laugh and I say, ‘Oh man, that move was dirty!’ She just has those wow moments, and sometimes it’s just fun to smile and watch them happen.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.