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Nearing 100 percent, Smith eager to make up for lost time

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Senior Amber Smith was relegated to the sidelines last year as she recovered from a torn ACL. (UK Athletics) Senior Amber Smith was relegated to the sidelines last year as she recovered from a torn ACL. (UK Athletics)
Watching Amber Smith last season, it was hard to notice anything was wrong.

That million-watt smile was still there, she was frequently in the middle of the pregame huddle at midcourt, and she was almost always at the side of her best friends Victoria Dunlap and Carly Morrow.

But when the lights were off and the doors were closed, Smith couldn't hide the pain. Rehabbing from her second major knee injury in four years, Smith was hurting a lot more than she led on.

"It was very tough," Smith said of the torn anterior cruciate ligament she suffered in her left knee last summer that sidelined her for what was supposed to be her senior season last year. "It was harder on me mentally. I had a lot of stuff running through my head. The first thing was Carly and Vic and not being able to go out with them."

Smith rehabbed with the idea of miraculously returning midway through the year to join her senior teammates, but all along she battled with a rollercoaster of emotions.

At first, having already gone through a torn ACL in her right knee her freshman year, Smith knew the type of grueling process she was about to go through. That didn't make things easy.

Then, when she saw her team struggle at the point-guard spot and fail to capitalize on the Elite Eight run in 2010, it made basketball difficult to watch.

And finally, when she returned to the court in late December/early January, she realized she couldn't cut as hard as she needed to in order to help the team. She ultimately decided to take a medical redshirt in 2010-11 and return this upcoming year as a redshirt senior.

Watching her best friends play and move on without her wasn't easy, especially when they struggled at times without her.

"I felt so helpless," Smith said. "I wanted to help the team get as far as we could, but that wasn't possible. That was very hard on me. I was very depressed because I couldn't believe what happened with the season we had (the year before). I was so ready for the next season and to get farther than the Elite Eight. That was a phase I had to get through."

Physically, the injury was a little bit easier to get through than her first torn ACL, but the mental trials of this one were much tougher because of the timing, especially in the beginning.

Although the Wildcats posted another successful season and made it to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year, UK struggled in some of its high-profile games. Those were almost unbearable for Smith to watch.

Smith sulked inward until head coach Matthew Mitchell started to ride her and made her realize that she was still an important piece to the team.

"He was on me, but I knew what he was saying was right," Smith said. "I knew he had to be honest with me. He's not a person to sugarcoat it. He's very honest. You've just got to take the criticism. Sometimes I knew I wasn't giving it my all off the court."

Specifically, Smith wasn't doing the things that made her so successful on the court. She wasn't talking on the bench and she wasn't displaying the passion that drove the Elite Eight team. For a player that aspires to be a coach, her emotions were getting in the way of a vital opportunity to learn while helping.

"I was pretty quiet in the beginning," Smith said. "I started being more vocal because I knew that's what the team needed. That's what I could give. I couldn't give anything on the court, so I had to give more off the court."  

Eventually, Smith settled into her role and became another pair of eyes and vocal chords for Mitchell and his coaching staff. Smith came to grips with herself in January that she wasn't going to be able to return.

She said she probably could have played a minimal role, but with the limited number of games she had left, it wasn't worth wasting an entire year of eligibility.

"I wanted to come back and be a factor," Smith said. "I knew that I couldn't come back last year and do that."

The knee is currently about 90 percent, according to the 5-foot-6 guard from Winter Haven, Fla. She's finished with the rehab process and has been working this summer on strengthening the knee. By the season's tipoff in October, Smith says she'll be "more than 100 percent."

As a fifth-year senior, Smith returns as the unquestioned heart and soul of the team. It's a role Smith says has been five years in the making.

"I've been in this program for five years and we've been through ups and downs," Smith said. "I've seen the best and I've seen the worst, so I'm very prepared to lead this program because I know what we're capable of. I'm very ready for this role. Most players don't get to be in a program for five years. I'm blessed."

Although she would have preferred to play last season, the extra year in the program has been a blessing in disguise. The year on the sidelines has allowed the communications graduate to get a head start on her master's in sports leadership while learning more about the game of basketball.

"Since I wasn't out there, I was watching the game and learning the game," Smith said, pointing specifically to her new habits in the film room. "That's going to help me this year with the court vision. I got better with my communication skills with my teammates. I built relationships that I probably wouldn't have built if I was on the court. I was spending more time trying to help each individual. I learned a lot from this process and I think it's going to help me tremendously this year."

Smith averaged 9.2 points and 4.5 assists her junior season. Her scoring counterpart, Dunlap, is now in the WNBA, but Smith says this year's team may actually have more scoring options than the last two. The additions of Connecticut transfer Samarie Walker and freshman forward Azia Bishop should cushion the loss of Dunlap inside, and veteran stars A'dia Mathies and Keyla Snowden return on the perimeter, in addition to McDonald's All-American Bria Goss.

Smith is most excited about the addition of height. With a crop of athleticism already in place, the added size gives Kentucky its most complete team for its pressure-based system.

"When we play pickup, I just smile at some of the plays they make," Smith said. "I'm just excited to have those types of players around me, especially being a point guard. I have people around me that can score and defend."

Smith isn't shy in talking about the expectations for this year. She said last season's second-round exit was a disappointment, adding that this year's team will not be satisfied with a second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference.

With a team motto of "Right Team, Right Place, Right Now," Smith said everything this year is geared towards Denver, home of the 2012 Final Four.

"That's where we want to be," Smith said. "We're not going to sell ourselves short with just making the Sweet 16 or making the Elite Eight. We want to get to the Final Four and contend for a national championship. I think if you don't have goals, you don't know what you're working for. This summer, we know what we're working for."

It took Smith an extra year to get here, but she's back working towards another magical run.

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