UTEP's Smith learning as freshman season progresses


HATTIESBURG – Freshman UTEP forward and former Petal Panthers star Tirus Smith was amped up for Thursday’s road game to Southern Miss. Perhaps a little too amped.

Despite his subpar performance in UTEP’s 85-75 loss to the Golden Eagles, Smith is quickly making a name for himself away from home. He’s starting more, scoring more, rebounding more and overall, becoming a better basketball player.

“It started off with my conditioning,” Smith said. “I wasn’t in the best shape. Then, getting the confidence to just play. Just go out there and play no matter the mistake you made or what you do, just keep it plugging.”

In his first trip to Reed Green Coliseum since he received his high school diploma in May, Smith finished with two points on 1-of-5 attempts and four rebounds – two offensive and two defensive – in 14 minutes of play.

Smith said he was looking forward to his return to the Hattiesburg area for a few weeks, which probably hurt his performance.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t come out and do what I was supposed to do,” Smith said. “I played weak to start off the game. I was too excited. Then we started making a run, that’s when I started calming down and started to just play. I’ll take it as a learning experience. It’s my first time coming back playing at home, but I have to realize these are business trips at the end of the day.

“As a freshman, I’m still learning that. Everything I do now, I’m learning.”

After starting a game for the seventh time this season, Smith went to the bench after five and a half minutes of game time. When he returned with 3:51 left until halftime, he pointed up to his father in the crowd then used his fingertips to forcibly hit his temple – a motion that’s common for basketball players.

“I tell myself to lock in,” Smith said. “Every time I do, it’s getting my mind right. Just focus. Focus on what I’m doing, focus on the task at hand, focus on things I need to do to get a win and do the things my team needs me to do.”

He promptly made his next basket, but unfortunately, it was his only made shot of the contest. The game, however, was not an example of how his freshman season in El Paso, Texas is going.

As a freshman, Smith is averaging 5.3 points per game and four rebounds. He leads the team with 23 total offensive boards, though, and he was named the Most Valuable Defensive Player in December’s Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational. He averages nearly 17 minutes a game, too.

Smith has had some ups and downs this season, he said. Whether it’s a bad moment or good, he’s learning from it to improve himself on the court. He had a 17-point, eight-rebound performance against Howard in December, he’s scored more than his 5.3-average six times this season and he’s scored at least one point in every game he’s played.

He’s even sharing everything he’s learning with his brother, Treylan Smith, who’s midway through his sophomore season at Petal.

“I’m learning so much more than I learned in high school,” he said. “Just getting to college and seeing it’s another game and there’s another level to the game that you don’t even understand yet. I’m trying to give my brother the head start that I didn’t have so he can be successful.”

Smith has earned several starts in recent games due to an injury to senior starting center Matt Williams. While Williams comes back slowly from a broken hand, Smith is trying to take advantage of the opportunity to prove he’s ready for the Division I level.

“He’s a 7-foot senior and he’s been our starting big man,” Smith said. “They’re trying to ease him back, so I’ve been trying to capitalize and play well. I look at it as an opportunity to keep it plugging.”

Smith and the Minters are 6-9 the season with a 1-2 mark in Conference USA play. UTEP will play Louisiana Tech on Saturday at 5 p.m., and the next matchup with the Golden Eagles will be on Feb. 24 in El Paso.