The final moments of Michael Smith's basketball career were not at all as they were supposed to be. They should have been all style and grace, but this has been a season short of both for the BYU Cougars. In the end there was mostly frustration as the Cougars put to rest a year filled with lurchings and hesitations.
The Cougars had two chances in the final 30 seconds to send their first-round WAC tournament game into overtime, but for one of the few times in his career, Smith couldn't produce. He missed two desperate shots down the stretch as Hawaii claimed a 72-69 win Thursday night at the Huntsman Center.The loss ended BYU's basketball season with a 14-15 record -- the only losing season in Coach Ladell Andersen's six years at BYU. It also ended the collegiate career of Smith, who leaves behind a trail of school and conference record,s including one for scoring the most points ever in a WAC tournament game -- 33.
In the moments immediately following the game Smith sat, drawn and quiet, in a media interview room. Tears welled up occasionally. "A measure of a ballplayer is whether or not he can carry his team and that, obviously, I haven't done this year -- especially in crucial games. It's been a disappointment from that standpoint," said Smith.
Of course, without Smith the Cougars would scarcely have won a game this season. He finished with a 26-point average, the league's No. 1 scorer and rebounder in conference games. But as the season closed, Smith found Hawaii's Reggie Cross in his way on one shot and 20 feet of space on the other. He was was unable to negotiate either.
Hawaii's ending BYU's season didn't come as much of a surprise. After spending most of their history looking at the Cougars from a prone position -- losing 19 of their first 22 games -- the Rainbows began to stir at the end of last year. They took the Cougars to the wire before losing 76-74 in the WAC tournament a year ago. This year Hawaii beat the Cougars by four in Provo and by two in Honolulu. Suddenly, what had been a cakewalk for BYU had become a nightmare. The 'Bows were coming on like a wave off the North Shore.
"The first time Hawaii was in Provo this year we saw the type of intensity that they have when they really are out to win," said Smith. "Some games you can see in a team's eyes that they don't care if they win or lose. You could definitely see that Hawaii wanted to win."
Major among the problems Hawaii presented this year was Cross, a fearsome 6-8 senior with trouble in his eyes. The Rainbows pointed Cross in Smith's direction from the opening tipoff when they jumped center against one another. But containing Smith got to be a problem. Cross picked up his second foul early in the first half and was banished to the bench for a few minutes' rest. In the second half he drew two more early fouls and ended up playing just 17 minutes in the game.
When Cross was on the court, he made the most of his time. He scored two baskets early and then settled in to keep Smith from scoring under triple figures. "You know Smith will get his points," Wallace said the day before meeting the Cougars. "You just hope the other players don't go off."
The Smith-Cross matchup proved to be a spirited one. At one point in the first half they began nagging one another like a pair of crows after Smith was called for an offensive foul.
"He (Cross) went, `That's the way to call it!' and `You're all over me!' Then he slapped me really hard on the rear," said Smith. "I wasn't going to let him get away with it, so as he walked by I gave him a little shove and said, `Hey, you don't need to be talking. They already called the foul. You don't need to be rubbing it in.' then he said, `Mike, I'm telling you right here and now, you do that once more and I'm going to punch you right in the face.' I said, `Reggie, be my guest because your team needs you and if you punch me, you're on the bench.'"
Cross did make it to the bench, but not for hitting anyone. Through much of the second half he watched from the sidelines after getting whistled for his fourth foul.
The game remained close throughout, neither club able to open more than a four-point lead. But after sitting out for most of the half, Cross was back for the finish. With the Rainbows up by two and 1:55 to go Cross knocked the ball away from Smith, causing a turnover.
Smith came back to net a jumper, pulling the Cougars within a point at 70-69, but that was a close as they would get. Hawaii guard Troy Bowe spun down the side of the lane and put a layup in with 32 seconds left, giving Hawaii a three-point lead.
"I practice that move every day in practice," said Bowe. "They call me Adrian Dantley when I move like that."
BYU's chances ended shortly thereafter. The Cougars drew up a plan to find Andy Toolson for a three-pointer, but the junior forward was smothered by the Rainbows' Vincent Smalls. Smith got off a twisting, contested baseline shot over Cross, but it clanged off the rim with 13 seconds to go. On the rebound Smith fouled Cross.
Cross missed a free throw, allowing the Cougars one more chance. But the best shot they could get was a weak Smith jumper from the three-point range, one that barely touched the rim.
"I took the shot just standing there," said Smith. "I went straight up, but there was just not enough on it."
However dejected Smith was about his last two shots, he carried the Cougars with his 33 points virtually alone in their final game. Only Marty Haws broke into double figures, scoring 10 points. Forward Andy Toolson was checked so thoroughly by Smalls that he could only get off four shots and finish with six points. "He's The Man," said Wallace of Smalls. "He's the No. 1 defensive player in the WAC as far as I'm concerned."
Terry Houston led Hawaii with 21 points. The victory moved Hawaii's record to 17-11 and set the Rainbows up in a semifinal game against Colorado State Friday at 9:30. A win would not only put the Rainbows in the championship game, but give them their most wins since 1974.
"We've been neglected," said Hawaii Coach Riley Wallace of the media coverage his team has received. "That helps us. Don't stop now ... I keep telling them (the players), hey, we haven't done anything. We've been dead for two or three years and they (the media) still think we're going to fold any minute now."
But on Thursday night the only team folding up the tent was BYU.