For the second-consecutive season, Vanderbilt sophomore guard Gabby Smith has the opportunity to return home to Cincinnati for the NCAA Basketball Tournament where she will play in front of her friends and family. For a team that has played in tournament games ranging from Seattle, Wash., to Norfolk, Va., under head coach Melanie Balcomb, it is a blessing to get to go to a player's hometown two years in a row. The sophomore is not taking it for granted.
"First off, I know how lucky I am," Smith said. "No one that I know at Vandy has had the chance to play in front of their hometown two years in a row - or even for one postseason. I'm grateful and excited because I'll get to see family and friends who I haven't seen in a while and I'll have their support out there."
Smith will have plenty of support in the crowd - most likely a section dedicated to cheering on their hometown hero. Her immediate family will be there, including her father, James, mother, Julie, and her two younger brothers, Blake and A.J. Gabby's older brother Zach will take a break from Graduate school at Ohio State University to come down to watch the first round matchup against Louisville. The other basketball player who will be in attendance is her sister Julianne, who is a senior at the University of Charleston in West Virginia.
Unfortunately, her other older brother Shane will not be in attendance due to his commitment to the West Point lacrosse program. There is no doubt that he will be cheering from his residence in New York.
Aside from parents and siblings, Smith has aunts, uncles and cousins coming down from Michigan to see her play for the first time in a while. Family members who have not been able to make the long trip to Nashville for a regular season game will have the chance to watch her play in the town she had success in.
Gabby has a strong basketball background in the Queen City, earning numerous accolades during her high school days. While playing for coach Dante Harlan at Mount Notre Dame, Smith was a member of four Ohio Division I State Championship teams and was named an All-State Tournament selection three times. As she grew, so did her team and accomplishments. ESPN ranked her high school team 10th in the nation during her junior campaign and 11th her final season. In those two years, Smith was named to the All-GGCL (Girls Greater Cincinnati League) team as well as an All-Star by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Getting to that point was no easy feat, and besides getting guidance from family, there were friends, teammates and mentors who helped shape her along the way. Those people will be in attendance to cheer her on when her name is announced.
"The most important part of me heading back to Cincinnati is being able to play in front of people who have made an impact on my life and basketball career since I was little. I just am glad to give them the opportunity to watch me play close to home."
To go along with the crown of mentors and peers, there will be a special group of young girls in attendance who have been inspired by the Smith women. Gabby, Julie and Julianne have been a part of the Cincy Swish program, coaching and training girl's AAU teams. The young basketball players Gabby has worked with in the summer will be there to support the person who has supported them over time.
Even though Smith grew up in Cincinnati, playing in the Cintas Center is something she does not have much experience with, minus the two games last season. Smith's high school team never played a game in the 11-year-old building but they did practice in it before the high school championship game. Last year, the team needed overtime to beat DePaul in the first round and fell to Xavier in round two. Gabby started both games but only scored eight points with two three-pointers.
This year, if the game gets close with Louisville, Smith will be able to look to the stands for support from friends and family. With more experience and poise, the sophomore will shoot for a successful postseason.
"Having my family and others who are important to me being there is great," said Smith. "I'll be a little nervous when I go out but at the same time, I've played here plenty of times and I'll have the comfort of knowing people are here watching me."