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Gonzaga Basketball

Guard Malachi Smith ‘grateful’ for Gonzaga’s tournament run to Elite Eight

Malachi Smith knows he has a decision to make regarding his future but that was the furthest thing from his mind in Gonzaga’s locker room Saturday following a season-ending loss to UConn in the Elite Eight.

He’d just completed a four-game run in the NCAA Tournament that in many ways mirrored his and Gonzaga’s season – mostly ups and a few downs.

Smith, a redshirt junior, took a moment to reflect on his last major decision – withdrawing from the NBA draft and transferring from Chattanooga to Gonzaga – and how his 2022 NCAA Tournament struggles drove him to succeed in his second appearance in March Madness.

Smith has painstakingly described the closing sequence as 13th-seeded Chattanooga came up just short of a first-round upset over No. 4 Illinois. His midrange jumper bounced off the back iron and the Illini won 54-53.

“I used that whole moment for motivation in the offseason, Smith said.

He scored just two points in 14 minutes in Gonzaga’s 82-70 first-round win over Grand Canyon but stepped up against TCU and UCLA. In those narrow wins, he averaged 12.5 points and 5.5 rebounds, hit four 3-pointers and forced a turnover on Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell in the closing seconds.

Smith was productive against UConn with another 3-pointer – he finished 8 of 14 from distance in the tournament – and eight points, but it had little impact in a 28-point loss.

“I’m keeping my head up,” Smith said. “I’m so grateful that I had this opportunity. I’ve never been this far in the tournament and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“There are so many players that haven’t even had this chance in their college career. I’ve been to the tournament twice, so I’m very grateful. It (losing to UConn) hurts, but doing this a long time, I just know I have to keep my head up.”

Smith did that during the regular season, adjusting to a role off the bench after an impressive two-year run at Chattanooga. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard led the Mocs in scoring (16.8), rebounding (8.8) and assists (3.3) in 2021 and nearly did it again in 2022 with 19.9 points, 6.7 boards and 3.0 assists while earning Southern Conference Player of the Year.

At GU, Smith scored in double figures in five consecutive December games but was in single digits in seven of the next eight. His best stretch was reaching double digits in seven of the final 14 games, including 13, 13 and 14 points vs. Saint Mary’s.

“I would say the competitiveness amongst each other but still a family,” said Smith, comparing Gonzaga to his stops at Wright State and Chattanooga. “In practice, having to guard (Rasir Bolton) every day or Anton (Watson), that makes you better. There’s not a lot of players better than these guys. And just the mentality of winning, everybody wants to win at the highest level.”

Smith, the West Coast Conference Sixth Man of the Year, would almost certainly have a bigger role if he opts to return but he hasn’t announced his plans. Either way, his contributions helped Gonzaga win 31 games and reach the Elite Eight.

“He’s a very energetic, charismatic guy who is a big-time team guy,” coach Mark Few said of Smith prior to facing UConn. “We’ve got some pretty stoic low-emotion guys. And so we needed Malachi just for that spirit that he has.

“He’s got that confidence also. He’s not afraid of the moment. I think that’s borne out of his experiences at Chattanooga where he was the man and needed to score, and could even process missing. So he might have a particularly kind of average half the first half but I have a lot of confidence he’ll hit a big shot in the second half.”