Coaches: Please send nominations for the area high school basketball player of the week by noon each Sunday to Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rhea County coach Tony Williams hoped that Jalen Smith was going to build on the second-half effort he put forth against Cleveland last Tuesday. Friday night, not only did he build on it, but he sealed the deal.
Smith had 33 points in the Golden Eagles' 68-62 upset of Ooltewah on Friday night. He scored 20 points against Cleveland in a loss on Tuesday, but his 26.5-point average was enough to earn him Times Free Press Player of the Week honors. He also averaged four assists and three rebounds in the two contests.
Splitting the week gave Rhea a 5-2 record overall and a 2-1 record in District 5-AAA. Smith hit 11 3-pointers in the two games, and his effort against Ooltewah was 12 points higher than his previous career high.
"Jalen's just a scorer. He has the ability to carry us offensively," Williams said. "I knew the potential was there for him to have a big game. He's had some tremendous halves, like the second half against Cleveland, but he was hitting shots in the second half of that game that he missed in the first half. I told him that if he came out with that same confidence, he could go for 40."
Williams noted that with Rhea County's recent past as a program, Smith has been frustrated in thinking that he might not get noticed. Yet, for the second straight season, Rhea has been able to pull off an upset victory, defeating Cleveland last season.
"I tell him that if he can play, people will notice him," Williams said. "We've really fed off the fact that we're a second-half team, and the guys know that if they could keep a game close, we would have a chance late in the game. When we played Cleveland on Tuesday, we weren't able to keep it close, and they built a 20-point lead and lead by double digits throughout.
"We feel like we have the talent to play with anybody, and the offensive firepower to win the game late."
Smith is a prime example of that. He had two 3s and 10 points in the final three minutes, finishing with 12 points in the fourth quarter of the victory over Ooltewah, and 19 of his 20 points against Cleveland came in the second half.
"Jalen averaged 14 points per game as a sophomore, and he's had some good games in his career," Williams said. "Ooltewah had the big win Tuesday [against Bradley], and they were flying high with confidence and possibly overlooked us.
"After last season's signature win [against Cleveland], we weren't able to build any momentum off of it. Hopefully we'll be able to this season."
With Smith, there'll be nobody overlooking the Golden Eagles this season.