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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Head coach Lamont Paris talks with UTC (13) Malachi Smith on Tuesday, November 23, 2021. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga defeated Covenant College at McKenzie Arena, 100-39.

To understand the drive and the motivation for University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore guard Malachi Smith, one must start at home.

It was at that home in Belleville, Illinois, where the 6-foot-4 guard watched his mom Connie struggle and do everything she could to provide for the two. But what Smith also had a chance to do was watch Connie strive: she obtained a bachelor's degree at Bellevue University in Nebraska in 2012 and a master's in business administration from Lindenwood University in 2017.

"All the sacrifices she made, I saw that growing up," Smith said last week. "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."

He will become the first in his family to graduate college as a "traditional graduate," going through four years of school.

"There's a lot of statistics that say what we're not supposed to accomplish, and together, we have accomplished much," Connie said Wednesday. "He's going to be the first young man in our family to graduate traditionally, and that's because of his hard work and dedication. I can't be more proud and excited and confident for what's in front of him, not only because of his hard work, but because of his faith, too."

It's always been the two of them, which means they know each other very well. That allows Malachi to put parameters on his mom's social media and social activities. Connie, who prides herself on being the "team mom" and has to be told no by her son when she decides she wants to make rice krispie treats for the team. She's also not allowed to have Instagram because Malachi says "she's always trying to communicate."

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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC's Malachi Smith (12) shoots against Charleston's Brenden Tucker (5). The UTC Mocs hosted the College of Charleston Cougars in Men's Basketball, at McKenzie Arena, on November 27, 2021.

But there was no stopping her from Thanksgiving, and after a conversation with the coaching staff Smith and some other UTC parents helped put together a dinner for the team.

She is very active on Twitter, and usually can be seen commenting positively on tweets about UTC's men's basketball team, which won 10 non-conference games for the first time since 2016 and begins Southern Conference play Thursday night against East Tennessee State (8-5) at McKenzie Arena, a nationally-televised game that will air on ESPNU at 7.

"I love the Mocs," Connie said. "I love UTC's men's basketball staff, because they've been really supportive in giving Malachi a platform to showcase his gifts to the world and we're just so grateful for it. We don't take it for granted."

It's another opportunity for her son, who has emerged as one of the top mid-major guards in the country and is averaging 20.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, to show the improvements he made after his first season with the Mocs when he earned first-team All-SoCon honors. Smith briefly tested the NBA waters this offseason, which allowed him to figure out some things he needed to improve on, and he's upped his 3-point shooting from 35% to 43% and his field-goal percentage up to nearly 55% from the field. He's also shooting better from the free-throw line and has upped his assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.1 to 1.7 this year.

But with two seasons of eligibility still remaining at UTC, Smith is in no rush to make that decision.

"You also want to use wisdom," he said. "We (he and his mom) are at a point where we're better now, so it's not a big rush because at the end of the day you don't want to leave yourself in a situation where you can't go back because you made a decision too early. Also it's about following your heart. Last year was a COVID year and a lot of people were doing it, so it was good to get the feedback about something that was going to help me this year and I think it's shown this year in the things that I'm doing and the plays that I'm making.

"(Testing the waters) was really big for me to take my game to the next level."

Watching his mom gave him the tools to understand how to take his life there.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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