On Jan. 12, 2014, Colorado Buffaloes’ senior guard/forward Haley Smith made her first start in white and gold, playing 17 minutes and scoring two points as a freshman in an 87-77 home loss vs. the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal.
Smith started in place of junior guard Jasmine Sborov, who would be sidelined for the rest of that season with a broken bone in her right foot.
“I was terrified,” Smith recalled. “Stanford [was] an amazing team, so I just remember being so scared but feeling proud of myself afterward with how I handled it and how I was trusted to continue to start the rest of that season.”
Smith, who majors in mechanical engineering, recently received all-academic honors from the Pac-12 Conference for the third time in her career with a 3.67 GPA. On the court, she averaged 11.2 points per game in her senior campaign while leading the team with 212 rebounds, setting career-highs in both regards.
She also led Colorado with 18 blocks and was the Buffaloes’ deadliest regular threat in the three-point department, going 47-of-120 from long range, good for just above a 39 percent make rate.
“She epitomizes everything that is great about a student-athlete,” said Buffaloes first-year head coach JR Payne. “She’s the ultimate student, the ultimate athlete and the ultimate teammate. She’s selfless, loves her teammates and loves this place.”
It is beyond safe to say that her reputation and character were forged long before she set foot onto the University of Colorado campus. Smith displayed many of the qualities that made her a standout at CU while at Skyline High School in her hometown of Sammamish, Washington.
“Coming in as a freshman, she was pretty quiet, [and had] a shy demeanor,” said Greg Bruns, who coached Smith during her career at Skyline. “As a high school player, she was so very unselfish. She tried to make everyone else better and was always looking for the pass, not the shot. It’s funny how I’ve gotten to see her evolve from that shy, timid freshman to what she’s become as a young lady.”
Upon graduating from high school, Smith chose Colorado over attending Northwestern University.
“In the end, it came down to the feel and vibe of CU,” she said. “I came here [for the first time] on a beautiful day — everyone was so welcoming and they all just showed me what it was like to be a Buff.”
Smith was recruited by former CU head coach Linda Lappe, who led the Buffs from 2010-16, and her staff.
“What makes Haley so exceptional is just so how authentic and genuine she is,” Lappe said. “When she showed up as a freshman, she was one of the most consistent players on our team, even as a freshman. From the day that Haley stepped on campus, it was very clear that she was going to be really special.”
Smith went on to average 4.9 points per game in 20 games that she started in place of the injured Sborov during her freshman season. By the end of her sophomore year, she and Soborov were the only two Buffaloes to start all 32 games. Smith increased her production that year to a 9.5 point per game average and led CU with a .472 conversion rate from the floor.
“Jasmine Sborov took me under her wing when I was a younger player,” Smith said. “We did a lot of shooting workouts together. She’s another player who just came out and got it done every night. She was not a crazy athlete or an amazing shooter; she had to work at all of that stuff just like I had to. She’s someone who made a big impact on me, especially in my younger years.”
Smith’s sophomore season, in 2014-15, saw the Buffs finish with a 15-17 record despite the presence of talented seniors Lexy Kresl and Jen Reese. A solid junior campaign by Jamee Swan, who led the team with a 13.2 points per game average, was not enough — the Buffs compiled a 6-12 record in Pac-12 play and failed to make the postseason.
But through the disappointing season, Smith was able to prove that she could be depended on as an upperclassman in the future.
On Jan. 14, 2015, Smith dropped 15 points in an overtime victory vs. Utah. She was perfect from the free-throw line, making 11, two of which were critical baskets made with five seconds left in overtime that sealed the win for Colorado.
Later that season, in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, Smith led the Buffs with 16 points in a 75-63 win over USC. She recorded three rebounds and was again perfect from the free-throw line in her team-leading 30 minutes on the court. The No. 9 Buffs got revenge on the No. 8 Trojans, who had beaten Colorado in both of the two teams’ regular season matchups by double digits.
In the next round of the tournament, Colorado would go on to shock the No. 1 seed and No. 7 overall Oregon State Beavers, winning 68-65, before falling to Cal in the semifinals.
After enjoying a supporting role during her first two seasons, Smith was thrust into a position of much more responsibility during her junior year in 2015-16. With Kresl and Reese gone, Smith and Swan had to adjust accordingly as a new class of freshman, which included now-standout guards Kennedy Leonard and Alexis Robinson, adapted to playing collegiate basketball.
Despite setting career highs with her 10.7 points per game and leading the Buffs with a .459 make rate from the floor, Colorado had its worst season since 1984-85, going just 7-23. The team failed to win a game away from the Coors Events Center and went 2-16 in Pac-12 play.
The Buffaloes’ lackluster year combined with Lappe’s departure at the end of the season stung.
“Last year was definitely a low point,” Smith said. “Not just for the wins and losses, but the effect it had on our team morale. We had a coaching change after that, so that was more that we had to get used to. The impact it had on us as players and on the university was rough.”
Needless to say, many question marks surrounded the women’s basketball program as Payne took the helm before the 2016-17 season. But the Buffs enjoyed an impressive first year under Payne, more than doubling their win total from last season.
Campaign highlights included downing the No. 15 Kentucky Wildcats at home in CU’s third game and qualifying for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT), which marked Colorado’s return to a postseason for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
The Buffs played well in their return to postseason play, winning two games before falling on the road to Iowa 80-62 in the third round. Smith led CU in that game — her final in a Buffaloes uniform — with 25 points. She averaged 19 points per game in Colorado’s three WNIT matchups.
Something that Smith has come to appreciate during her tenure at CU is what it means to play “Colorado basketball.” The phrase, with an emphasis on Colorado, took flight during the Tad Boyle era of men’s basketball and similarly during head coach Mike MacIntyre’s recent revitalization of the football program.
The idea of playing Colorado basketball or Colorado football is something that was created almost out of thin air. But its meaning has steadily prospered and developed to a point where the phrase has trickled down to all the university sports teams, instilling a unique sense of pride and a mission statement among Colorado’s athletes.
“If you look at all sports at Colorado, we’re maybe not the elite athletes or McDonald’s All-Americans, but we’re the kids who just come out and work every day,” Smith explained. “When I think about ‘Colorado basketball,’ it’s more about just being those kids who are hardworking and tough.”
Along the winding road that has been her college basketball career, this year Smith became just the 29th CU player to notch 1,000 career points in a Buffaloes uniform, which she accomplished during Senior Day on Feb. 19. In her final regular season home game, Smith scored 23 vs. the Oregon Ducks in a 76-66 win.
One of her biggest contributions to the women’s basketball program at CU has been the role of mentor she’s played to the team’s younger talent. Throughout her collegiate career, a semi-regular task of hers has been hanging out with potential and incoming recruits to give them a taste of what it’s like in Boulder and on campus.
“It was kind of like a freshman duty, but as I moved on, I’ve continued to do it, and I’ve enjoyed doing it, just to share what my experience has been and what I love about [Colorado],” Smith said.
When Leonard came to CU for her official visit as a junior in high school, Smith helped to give her the lowdown about Colorado.
“Me and Haley hit it off early,” Leonard said. “I look to Haley for a lot of things. I did when I was in the recruiting process, I did my freshman year, I still do and probably will when she leaves. Everybody needs a Haley Smith in their life.”
“She’s taught them the work ethic that it takes to be successful and the selflessness to put your teammates above yourself,” Payne said. “Haley’s gotten to a place where she lives that. The [other players] strive to live that.”
Offensive production can be replaced. So can rebounding, blocks and quality minutes on the court. Trying to replace Smith and what she encompassed as a student-athlete at CU is a challenge of a different sort.
But as she prepares to graduate, Smith can rest easy when looking back at her teammates that will shoulder the women’s basketball program at CU for the foreseeable future.
“My class’s legacy can be to show them how to work hard and how to have the mental toughness and work ethic,” Smith said. “These kids are way better than I can ever be, and I’m really excited for after I leave and come back next year and the year after that to see where these guys go.”
On behalf of this university, its employees and its student body, thank you, Haley, for demonstrating what it truly means to be excellent. Best of luck in the future and may success and happiness follow you wherever you go.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.