Ask forward Kim Smith and guard Shona Thorburn about goals for their upcoming senior year at the University of Utah and they will say the same thing: “We want to get deeper in the NCAA tournament, make the Sweet 16 and go on to the finals.” After a two-week break at the end of the season, the team is back into the weight room to start the training process for next year. Both standout Utes are looking toward their final season of college basketball and before that, tryouts for the Canadian National Team over the summer. Both Communication majors are happy to talk about their personal and team results on the year, especially the third consecutive Kodak/Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) Honorable Mention All-American for Smith and the first for Thorburn, though their reactions show them for the team players they are.
“It is an honor to be recognized as an All-American,” says the 6-1 Smith, who takes little credit for the accolade. “This kind of recognition does a lot for the program and the coaching staff.” Thorburn’s first-time recognition is, for her, the cap on a good season. “It’s very cool. It is really not something you think about during the year at all, but when the season is over and it happens, it is nice to look back.”
Mission, British Columbia, remains proud of native daughter Smith, who graduated from Heritage Park Secondary School. Heading into the 2004-05 season, Smith had already scored over 1,000 points from her position as a forward, making her the second sophomore to reach the milestone. Her parents travel to as many games as possible, and Smith works on staying in touch with former coaches and people in B.C. basketball. She fosters the Canadian connection by going home to watch younger players, and bringing names back to the Utes coaching staff. “With five Canadians on the team, there is a real connection with home here,” says Smith. “And it isn’t just basketball. There are Canadians on the swim team, the ski team – the university has a really nice international community.”
Keeping the Canadian connection is a bit more difficult for 5-10 Shona Thorburn to maintain, as it is a three-day drive back home to Hamilton. However, there is still lots of attention from the basketball hotbed in southern Ontario, including the hometown newspapers that continue to follow her career. “We’re a young team and we like to tease the other players that the potential is there for an All-Canadian starting line-up,” says Thorburn.
Thorburn and Smith were Mountain West Conference Co-Players of the Year. It was Smith’s third straight MWC Player of the Year and Thorburn’s first, while both were first-team All-MWC selections. Smith led the Mountain West Conference in scoring and rebounding, while Thorburn paced the league in assists. Averaging 17.8 points a game and 9.1 rebounds, Smith ranked in the top 15 in 12 out of the 13 statistical categories in the conference. She also led the MWC with 12 double-doubles. Thorburn on the other hand led the Utes in total minutes played (38.5) and averaged 14.9 points per game, 6.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
Utah was 26-8 in 2004-05, winning a share of the MWC regular season championship, finishing as runner-up in the MWC tournament and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. That was the highlight of the season for Thorburn, who says the intense attention in the biggest of all tournaments brings the team together to maintain focus. “When it comes down to it, your coaches are there and teammates are there to keep you on track,” she says of the NCAA hoopla. “When game time rolls around, you are ready to play.”
Although the ‘04-05 season is barely behind them, both players are acutely aware their last year of college basketball is a few short months away and their sights are set squarely on Sweet 16, Final Eight and Four for ‘05-06. Smith thinks they can go deeper in the NCAA tourney than any other Utah team, and while she admits you never know until the season starts, it’s a gut feeling that next year is the one to realize the dream.
“We were young this year,” she says. “Six freshmen came in, but they really stepped up and by the end of the year we got it all figured out. While I hate to see the season end because I always just want to keep on playing, I know we’ve built the foundation for next season.”
Before taking the floor to start the drive to the NCAA Tournament, both are trying out to be repeat members of the Canadian National Team. Thorburn has played 40 international games for Canada and Smith has been a member of the Senior Women’s National Team since 2001, leading all players in a four-game Olympic qualifier series against Japan last summer with 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. This year’s qualifiers are in Puerto Rico.
“It is a very different style of game,” says Smith. “It is more physical out there in international ball.” A natural for team leaders next season, both Thorburn and Smith are acutely aware that their final season is coming up at Utah. Decision time for the next phase of their basketball careers will come a year from now when both players graduate, and under NCAA rules, have to leave the college game. It will be the end of a great ride, but certainly not the end of the game for either one. “It has already gone by so fast and I plan to make the most of next year,” says Smith. “I’d like to give the WNBA a shot, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ll play overseas.”
Thorburn’s goals are similar. “I can’t imagine not being part of the game. Travel and living away from Canada doesn’t bother me at all. After next season I’ll take a tryout opportunity if one comes up in the WNBA, but playing overseas would be an awesome experience.” The Utes roster will be joined by a new crop of freshmen next year and both Thorburn and Smith expect at least one freshman will be from Canada. Thorburn is also determined to win at the “Pit” in New Mexico, a hostile gym for any opponent and a rivalry for the Utes.
And what do fellow Utes and fans make of the Canadian contingent? Do they realize Steve Nash is not the only ball player to come out of Canada? Thorburn says there are some who would believe her if she claimed her parents drove a dogsled and that others have no idea where Ontario is located. It is a bit easier for Smith, who says many have heard of British Columbia, although she admits that there are some in Utah who wonder how it is Canada turns out solid basketball players from a country of hockey and skiing.
Both feel they’ve done their part to show that the Maple Leaf is about a lot more than pucks and the downhill. “We are definitely turning out good basketball players,” says Smith.
Indeed. With teammates from Sudbury, Guelph and another from Hamilton – not to mention the incoming freshmen, that All-Canadian starting lineup may not be so much of a joke after all.