The first and only time Malachi Smith got a taste of what March Madness is all about, he and his Chattanooga teammates found themselves on the wrong end of a heartbreaking one-point loss, 54-53, to No. 4-seeded Illinois in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
Smith led the team with 12 points that day, but he needed two more. He drove the lane and put up a runner on the final possession of the game, but it was swatted away. He retrieved the rebound, but his jumper was off the mark as the buzzer sounded. The Illini celebrated while the Moccasins collapsed in defeat.
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No longer the plucky underdog after transferring to Gonzaga last offseason, Smith, now a redshirt junior, is hoping for a different outcome this time around. The Bulldogs are a No. 3 seed with a 28-5 record, they’re the West Coast Conference Tournament champions after a 77-51 trouncing of No. 1-seed Saint Mary’s in the title game, and they boast wins against fellow heavyweights Michigan State, Kentucky, Xavier, Alabama and Saint Mary’s (twice).
Smith has adapted quite well to his role in Spokane, Washington. After being a starter the last two years at Chattanooga and being named the Southern Conference Player of the Year in 2021-22, he’s come off the bench for all but one game for the Bulldogs this season and provided instant energy from the guard spot. His 8.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, while shooting an incredible 49.4% from 3-point range, earned him the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
2022-23 @WCChoops Sixth Man of the Year
📰Press Release: https://t.co/v4PgvrYD9r pic.twitter.com/8jPOqFcL3t
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) March 1, 2023
A native of Belleville, Illinois, Smith learned the value of hard work from his mother, Connie.
“All the sacrifices she made, I saw that growing up,” Smith told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2021. “So when I’m working out or when I’m in the gym, I’m like, ‘She didn’t give up, so I can’t give up.’ That’s why she is how she is, because she’s my best friend and I’m always trying to do what I can do to take care of her.”
Connie served in the United States Air Force for more than 12 years. She eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Bellevue University in 2012 and a master’s in business administration from Lindenwood University in 2017, going on to become an executive assistant for Caleres.
All the while, she was busy raising Malachi and on her own after she and his father divorced when Malachi was 6. Among the values she taught him was what it means to be a follower of Christ. He was even named after the last Bible book of the Old Testament: Malachi, which means “my messenger” in Hebrew.
“I was stationed in Florida when I found out I was pregnant with him,” Connie told the Dayton Daily News in 2018. “We were attending a church service and every time the pastor said, ‘Turn to the Book of Malachi,’ my son just kicked in my stomach.”
Malachi reflected on his upbringing in a story with His Huddle last month: “My mom and dad instilled faith into me at a young age. My mom and I had struggles growing up that grew our faith stronger together. It did not always look promising for us but we knew that trusting in God and having faith in what we didn’t see was going to ultimately get us through whatever struggles we had. Faith has always been and always will be the most important thing to me.
“… Faith plays a huge role in my basketball career. I wouldn’t have made it this far if my faith was not as strong as it is.”
Malachi is active on social media in discussing his faith, describing himself in his Instagram bio as a “Child of God through Christ” and citing Proverbs 3:5, which reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
Make sure you don’t just ask GOD for the blessing…but for the wisdom on how to handle the blessing🙏🏾
— Malachi Knight-Smith ™ (@maliworld11) February 9, 2023
All glory to GOD ❤️✝️ https://t.co/oXR34Ywk1A
— Malachi Knight-Smith ™ (@maliworld11) February 26, 2023
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Malachi and his Bulldog teammates will tip off at 7:35 p.m. ET Friday against No. 14-seeded Grand Canyon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Denver, Colorado, hoping it’s the first step in the journey toward the program’s first-ever national championship. Regardless of whether he reaches that goal or comes up short, Malachi can be assured of God’s steadfast love for him.
“The game of basketball will bring you adversity and test your love for the game,” he told His Huddle. “My faith is what keeps me going.”
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