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Gonzaga Basketball

Gonzaga’s Malachi Smith turned painful March Madness memory into motivation entering 2023 NCAA Tournament

A full year later, Malachi Smith still remembers every detail with impressive precision.

Chattanooga’s time with the lead?

“39 minutes and 30 seconds,” Smith said.

The possession before the possession?

“I had got fouled, so I was planning on, ‘OK, look, I’m going to try to get fouled again,’ ” he said.

The offensive play coach Lamont Paris called in from the Moccasins’ sideline?

“A play where I reject the ball screen so they couldn’t double me,” he said.

And finally, the moment Smith watched on replay more times than he could count in the weeks and months following Chattanooga’s first-round NCAA Tournament exit.

“I go to the hole, it gets blocked and then I get the rebound,” Smith said. “I get a good look from midrange that hits the back of the rim and literally I make that 9 nine times out of 10, and just that one time I missed.”

Gonzaga’s senior guard has burned the sequence of events into his memory. An 18-foot jumper was the only thing separating No. 13 Chattanooga from an upset of No. 4 Illinois.

Had the shot rattled in, Smith is confident there would have been more marquee March moments in store for the Southern Conference champion Moccasins. Instead, it ricocheted off the back iron, into the hands of an Illinois player and Chattanooga’s season was over, just like that, with a 54-53 loss in Pittsburgh.

“Last year we were the team everyone said would make the Sweet 16,” he said. “We were everybody’s Cinderella prediction just based off how good we were.”

Sixty-six other teams left the NCAA Tournament with the same result, including the Gonzaga program Smith joined this offseason, but it still took him a full week to come to terms with an abrupt ending at PPG Paints Arena.

Once the Moccasins returned home, Smith secluded himself in a bedroom, replaying the moment in his mind and imagining a different outcome.

“I didn’t talk to anybody for a week,” Smith said. “I didn’t leave my room for a week, just because I felt like I was a failure. When I learned I wasn’t a failure, I had done so many great things and that one shot wasn’t the reason we lost.”

Mother Connie Smith, who’s come to an expect a text or call from her son every day – almost without failure – waited 24 hours before her son reached out.

“We needed a day,” she said. “He’s not a loser and losing that game after such a great season was a little hard. I just knew he needed 24 hours to reflect on everything he did. After that, we spoke and everything was good and we started strategizing for what comes next.”

Smith started to look ahead, entering the transfer portal while simultaneously testing the NBA draft waters. As he mulled the options, the veteran guard took measures to improve his mental approach to the game.

Smith obtained a copy of Kobe Bryant’s book, “Mamba Mentality: The Way I Play,” taking various lessons and tips from the late Los Angeles Lakers star and applying them to his game.

“I just felt like I let a lot of people down, so I was really hard on myself,” he said. “But just reading Kobe Bryant’s book and listening to a lot of great people who have had failures in those type of areas, they’ve always said it made me the player I am.

“Kobe airballed his rookie year three shots to go to the playoffs and everybody said, ‘Kobe’s not this, he’s not this.’ He said, ‘I learned from that,’ and then you saw what Kobe turned into.”

Targeting a return to the NCAA Tournament, Smith transferred to a program that had qualified for 24 in a row, accepting a bench role for Mark Few at Gonzaga this season after starting 60 games over two seasons at Chattanooga.

“He’s a team guy and, to be honest, he’s averaging 8 or 9 points and he’s shooting 50% from 3 on a team that has a chance, I think, to make a run in March,” said assistant Roger Powell, the first Gonzaga coach to contact Smith in the portal. “… He’s been great.”

Smith was named the West Coast Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year and scored 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the floor in Gonzaga’s 77-51 romp over Saint Mary’s in the conference tournament championship game.

Smith’s set on a deep run in March with a program that’s made seven consecutive Sweet 16 appearances and two national title games since 2017. The painful memory of a missed jumper is giving Gonzaga’s veteran guard all the motivation he needs.

“I watched it all summer. I watched it all summer and I told myself I’m going to use this as a learning experience,” he said. “I’m not going to get down on myself, think I’m not a good shooter or anything. Just, I’m going to be prepared for that moment and every great player says you have to fail to succeed.

“Now it’s made me such a better player, the way I’ve honed in my workouts by myself. The way I’ve handled a big atmosphere and spotlights, it’s shaped me into the player I am now.”