To become the player she is now, Amber Smith had to lose the pizza weight.
Which is funny because a year ago, the sophomore on the Missouri women’s basketball team was gaining it to be successful. At 5 feet 11, she was undersized for a post player, but the Tigers had lost All-SEC forward Jordan Frericks to an ACL tear. They needed Smith to take her place, which meant Smith had to build up her body.
So she ordered Pizza Hut. Her go-to: pepperoni, with the occasional added bacon.
“It’s not healthy, but it’s better than McDonald’s,” Smith said. And the result were healthy. She was the SEC’s co-freshman of the year.
But Frericks was always coming back, which meant Smith would have to find a new place in the starting lineup. She has changed from a power forward to a guard. She is about 10 pounds lighter — closer to the weight she was when she arrived at MU — and she is one of the reasons the No. 12 Tigers might be the best team in program history. They won at Vanderbilt 81-70 on Thursday evening behind Smith’s 18 points.
“It was a pretty easy decision,” coach Robin Pingeton said of changing Smith into a guard. “I didn’t know how long the transition would take for Amber. I do think it’s a completely different feel for her.”
Pingeton thought guarding players on the perimeter would be the toughest change for Smith, who must weave around opponents’ screens more often. But she said her confidence to begin the season was lagging more on offense.
As a high schooler in Shreveport, La., she played every position. She brought the ball up. Then she posted up.
But after playing power forward during her freshman season at Missouri, she said she “played mental games.”
Smith thought too much about what position she was playing. Though she reached double figures in scoring during five of Mizzou’s first 11 games, she said she sometimes played tentatively. She worried about standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Dribbling and spotting up for threes didn’t feel right.
“Am I two?” Smith said. “Am I three? Am I three, or am I four?”
Smith said about two weeks ago, right around when conference play began, Pingeton told her to stop worrying. The coach reminded her that Missouri runs a motion offense, which relies on versatile skill sets and allows players to move all over the floor.
The Tigers’ All-American guard playing opposite of Smith, Sophie Cunningham, talked to her, too, about how they could best play off of one another and where Cunningham likes to receive the ball.
All of those conversations seemed to have worked. Two of the best games of Smith’s career have come during Mizzou’s first SEC games of the season.
On Sunday, she scored 20 points against South Carolina, the defending national champion. The game before, she scored 27 points against LSU. She made a trio of threes in each game.
If she keeps this up, she’ll show that stopping the Tigers’ entire offense — with Frericks now back — is difficult.
Earlier in the season, when Mizzou beat Kansas State, the Wildcats focused on shutting out Cunningham, who scored one point and didn’t make a field goal. But Smith scored 23 points against K-State.
“When we’re both playing like we are right now, it’s really hard to guard,” said Cunningham, who is averaging a career-high 17.9 while shooting career best percentages from the field and from three. “It opens up other opportunities for other teammates. I think we need to just keep doing what we’re doing. Keep growing.”
Smith, who is averaging 10.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, is shooting lower percentages from the field and from three this season. But she’s still efficient, and she’s averaging three more shots per game (8.9) than she was as a freshman — a sign of the increased confidence that her teammates and coach mentioned.
In the Tigers’ big win over South Carolina, Smith also grabbed a career high 12 rebounds, showing even after the position change that she hasn’t lost some of those post player traits.
“She was elevating over everybody,” point guard Lauren Aldridge said. “Great athleticism.”
Maybe you can thank the dropped weight for that.
“I have lost that — and a little bit more,” Smith said.
As a result, the Tigers have gained a good perimeter player.