‘Whatever we need from him, he’s always there.’ Malachi Smith delivers key 3-pointer, block to help Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s
Feb. 25, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 25, 2023 at 11:04 p.m.
Roger Powell couldn’t guarantee Malachi Smith a starting role when the Gonzaga assistant phoned the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year last spring to gauge his interest in a move to Spokane.
There was something Powell could promise to the Chattanooga transfer guard with at least some level of certainty, considering Gonzaga’s track record over two decades.
“He wanted to win, man,” Powell said. “He wanted to win.”
Smith accomplished that goal on at least one level, walking off the floor at McCarthey Athletic Center on Saturday night with a white West Coast Conference champions cap resting on his head and the accompanying trophy tucked into his left arm.
When Gonzaga needed a key bucket against Saint Mary’s, Smith was the one delivering it. When the Bulldogs needed a stop on defense, the veteran guard came through on that end .
Smith was one of Gonzaga’s most effective players in a 77-68 win over the Gaels, helping the Bulldogs clinch at least a share of the WCC regular-season title for the 11th consecutive season with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field, five rebounds and one key block.
The former Chattanooga and Wright State player came to Gonzaga looking to make an impact in whatever capacity the Bulldogs needed. Head coach Mark Few didn’t wait long to take advantage of the guard’s versatility , pulling him off the bench less than 3 minutes into the conference regular-season finale.
Smith, who’s shooting just shy of 50% from 3-point range this season, stepped up to make his only 3 of the night with 10 minutes to play. The Gaels had trimmed a 19-point deficit to six points when Smith got the ball at the top of the arc. He collected and released, watching the ball rattle in to restore a 57-48 Gonzaga lead.
“We didn’t get very many clean looks from 3 today, so it’s huge he could step up and make them,” Gonzaga wing Julian Strawther said. “He just made plays all night and that’s what he’s here for, to make plays and make things happen. I’m super proud of him and it seems like whatever we need from him, he’s always there. That’s huge.”
Smith also helped Gonzaga clog up the Gaels’ offense after Saint Mary’s and star freshman Aidan Mahaney went on a second-half tear to close the deficit to two possessions.
Mahaney was deep in the paint when he attempted a short jumper over the 6-foot-4 Smith. The ball had barely left Mahaney’s hands when Smith stuffed it and fed it ahead to Strawther.
“I just think having that mentality to just want to get revenge for that (Feb. 4) loss I feel like we let slip away. I always try to come with the mentality of being aggressive,” Smith said. “This one felt kind of personal. I just wanted to get it. Whatever it took, whatever I was needed to do, that’s what I wanted to just come in and do right away.”
Smith, who won the Lou Henson National Player of the Year last season – given to the top midmajor player in college basketball – could take advantage of a COVID-19 waiver and return to Gonzaga next season. That might be an enticing offer if more winning is on the table.
“I’m just grateful for every day, having the opportunity to play the game I love,” Smith said. “I don’t look at different roles or anything, I just try to go out there and have fun and enjoy it. Like I said, do what I can do to help the team. I feel like that’s what makes me a good player. It doesn’t have to be scoring all the time, it can just be being a voice or being defense.
“Feels just as sweet if I’m coming off the bench or something. It feels just as good.”
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