When she was in ninth and 10th grade, Ahlana Smith’s trainer would often ask: “Do you want to be good, or do you want to be great?”
Tim Fields, who at the time was also Vance High’s girls’ basketball coach, asked that so much Smith grew tired of hearing it, she said. Now a senior at Mallard Creek, Smith admits back then she was trying to be better basketball player, but she wasn’t working nearly hard enough.
“He helped me understand my full potential,” Smith said of Fields. “He finally helped me notice that I could be great.”
After ramping up her training, Smith - who played her first two seasons at Vance - elevated her game to heights even Fields might not have envisioned. She is ranked No. 18 nationally among seniors by the All-Star Girls Report, No. 30 by ESPN and No. 37 by PrepNation. A McDonald’s All-American nominee, she has signed with UCLA. She’s also a three-time all-conference standout who has scored more career points (1,626) than any boys’ or girls’ player ever from Mallard Creek.
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And she’s doing this while playing - on average - about half of her team’s games. In her two seasons at Mallard Creek, the Mavericks are 45-3. They were 16-2 entering Thursday’s game against rival Vance and are ranked No. 4 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll.
Mallard Creek is winning by nearly 30 points per game, but Smith is making the most of her limited court time, averaging 14 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists.
“She works hard, man,” said Mallard Creek assistant coach Kerry Sargent, a longtime and successful head boys’ coach for the Charlotte Nets’ travel team. “She’s a gym rat and she’s a team player, too. Her stats could be a lot higher than what they are, but she’s making sacrifices to allow people to shine.
“But make no mistake, she’s got that ‘killer’ (instinct) in her that you can’t teach.”
Smith moved to Charlotte from Connecticut, where, like most of her peers, she started school earlier than is traditional here. So she just turned 17 in November. Most seniors she faces are at least a year older. But Smith is used to playing with older girls. Her game was developed from a young age, when as a seventh-grader Smith regularly played against high school girls in elite travel tournaments.
It took awhile, and it took battling through some frustration, but it was that seventh-grade year, in one of those events, that Smith had her moment.
“I went off,” she said, “and I knew.”
She knew she could play at a high level. She knew she could dominate. And when she combined that natural ability with the hard work her trainer asked of her, Smith climbed the recruiting charts, eventually picking UCLA over Baylor, Maryland, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
“UCLA is my dream school,” she said. “It’s a great academic school and, of course, it’s in downtown L.A. I love the coaching staff and I love the school. I felt I could trust them with the next four years of my life.”
National girls’ basketball scout Bret McCormick of All Star Girls Report says UCLA is getting a special talent.
“When I saw her, she did pretty much everything,” said McCormick, a former women’s college assistant at Marshall, Central Florida and Cincinnati. “She was a good athlete and her game was so aggressive. I saw her shoot runners in the lane, hit step-back jumpers and score at all different levels. ...Ahlana has the type potential that when she graduates from college, she has the potential to get drafted in the WNBA.”
But before she attends college and whatever comes afterward, Smith wants to leave Mallard Creek with a state championship. The Mavericks lost by one point in the semifinals last season. As her senior year winds down, Smith said she’s more focused than ever on her final high school basketball goal.
“I feel like the loss last year put a fire in our hearts,” Smith said. “It’s like, yo, it’s anybody’s game. It’s anybody’s night. We can’t take anyone lightly. I can’t wait until the fourth quarter to turn it in.
“I have to come out with a bang and end with a bang. ...This is my last year, my last go ’round. I’ve got to make it special. To do that, we’ve gotta get a ring. We’ve got to bring a ring back to Charlotte.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
Top Carolina Girls’ Recruits
Izabela Nicoletti, Raleigh Neuse Christian, 5-10, Sr., G: McDonald’s All-American is ranked No. 6 nationally by ESPN. Signed with Florida State.
Ahlana Smith, Mallard Creek, 5-9, Sr., G: McDonald’s All-American nominee is ranked No. 30 nationally by ESPN. Signed with UCLA.
Elissa Cunane, Northern Guilford, 6-5, Sr., F: N.C. State signee is ranked No. 55 nationally by ESPN. McDonald’s All-American nominee.
Shaniya Jones, High Point Wesleyan, 5-6, Sr., G: Virginia Tech signee ranked No. 79 nationall by ESPN. McDonald’s All-American nominee.
Cayla King, Northwest Guilford, 5-10, Jr., G: Virginia Tech recruit ranked No. 41 nationally among juniors by ESPN.
Elizabeth Kitley, Northwest Guilford, 6-4, Jr., F: Virginia Tech recruit ranked No. 51 nationally among juniors by ESPN.
Reigan Richardson, Hickory Ridge, 5-11, Fr., G: Among freshmen, ranked No. 7 nationally by All Star Girls Report.
Others: Tamari Key, Cary, 6-5, Jr, F; Alexandra Scruggs, Fayetteville Trinity Christian, 5-10, Jr., G; Jada Peebles, Raleigh Wakefield, 5-7, Jr., G; Mallorie Haines, Davidson Day, 5-10, Fr., G; Saniya Rivers, Wilmington Laney, 5-10, Fr., G