High School Sports

Carolina-bound leading scorer learned from Cardinal Gibbons coach

Olivia Smith is seen at a game earlier this season in Raleigh. She recently broke the school’s all-time NCHSAA scoring record in career points.
Olivia Smith is seen at a game earlier this season in Raleigh. She recently broke the school’s all-time NCHSAA scoring record in career points.

Olivia Smith couldn’t help but be intimidated by her high school basketball coach at first.

Though she had known Cardinal Gibbons’ Jessica Lowe since she was in the fifth grade, there was something different about a chance to play for her.

“I still remember being scared to death of her my freshman year,” Smith said. “The juniors had to come to me and say, ‘Olivia, it’s OK. I promise you.’ I just thought of it as the biggest honor coming in.”

Lowe is Cardinal Gibbons’ all-time leading scorer. She graduated from the school in 1999 with 2,212 points in hand, more than any other boys’ or girls’ basketball player to come through either program.

Because of her still-standing mark, Lowe was inducted into Gibbons’ Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013.

Lowe’s record has proven hard to beat. One player, as she wraps her senior season with the Crusaders, crept as close as possible this year. Smith reached 1,617 points on Feb. 5, setting a new scoring record for Gibbons since it joined the N.C. High School Athletic Association in 2005. Smith passed previous record holder Melissa Shafer’s 1,616 career points.

The Crusaders were still competing in the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association when Lowe set her record.

Gibbons not only moved into the public-school athletic realm since Lowe’s work, but it has progressed into the 4A classification. Though Lowe longs for someone to break her record, competing against public schools – 4A nonetheless – presents a challenge.

“I think moving to the public (schools), the competition probably, and playing at a 4A level, girls are a little bit bigger than us, little bit stronger than us,” Lowe said. “It’s not easy to consistently fill the stat sheet. I don’t know if I were playing now that I’d score 2,000 points. I’d give it a good shot, though.”

Smith, now a senior, didn’t break 2,000 points in her high school career, but she and Lowe still share a unique relationship.

A once-frightened freshman basketball player has blossomed into a well-rounded shooting guard. Smith started as primarily a defensive specialist under Lowe her first season, then her scoring began developing more. Smith also said she can now freely discuss anything with her coach, who’s helped her with shooting technique.

But from the time Lowe met Smith at a youth basketball camp, Lowe realized her potential.

“We all sat at camp and said, ‘Man, if she continues to develop, she’s going to be really good,’ ” Lowe recalled. “And then her freshman year, she’d grown up a bit. She was tiny. I was like, ‘Is this the same tiny little kid that came to camp?’ She’s developed. She can shoot the ball really well, and that’s gotten progressively better every year. She’s grown three of four inches in high school. She’s been an all-conference performer since she was 14 years old.”

Love of the game

Smith, who plans to forgo the Ivy League to play at UNC, has always admired basketball. She said her mother, Patricia, put her and her five other siblings in a variety of sports as children.

Basketball stuck with Smith.

“It just has everything,” she said. “It’s the team-bonding moments, it’s the diving on the floor, it’s the battling through players. For me, that thrill was something I had to keep going with.”

All three of my older sisters went to Carolina, so I grew up a huge Carolina fan. Deciding I wanted to play basketball, I was like I’m going to have to give all that up. I got offers from Harvard, Yale, Furman then decided to give up the Ivy League because Carolina said we want you to play with us.

Cardinal Gibbons SG Olivia Smith

The 6-foot guard led the Crusaders with 21.4 points and 11.2 boards a game before the regular-season finale at Northern Durham on Friday. Entering that contest, she had 1,645 career points.

She reached a double-double in a senior-night loss to East Chapel Hill on Tuesday, her final regular-season home game.

Throughout the night, it was clear why the Crusaders look to Smith for leadership and why Lowe said it will be “a little scary” without her next season.

Smith’s consecutive 3-pointers gave Gibbons a 6-0 lead to start the game. Up two points later in the first quarter, she put herself between an East dribble. That was nothing compared to a pass she intercepted in the second half.

With Gibbons leading 34-29 in the third quarter, Smith fought for an offensive rebound and, with a quick release, found Elizabeth McCulloh on the wing for a 3-pointer.

Smith also demonstrated her versatile scoring abilities by not only shooting but driving through traffic to attack the rim.

“She’s been a huge aspect to our team,” Lowe said. “She really works on being able to score off the dribble.”

Beyond the game

Lowe admitted the scoring prowess she shares with some of her players is special.

“It’s pretty cool to know that a couple people on the bench have over 3,000 points sitting with us,” she said. “That’s fun.”

Lowe called herself a shooter’s coach. And since she played in college, she understand what it takes to locate success at the next level.

As Smith prepares for her dream school UNC, Lowe urged her to work even harder. Smith said she could have attended Harvard, Yale and the more local Furman. She is in the top 5 percent of her class academically, so Lowe isn’t concerned with Smith’s ability in the classroom.

Lately, Smith said, the coaching staff has emphasized how much bigger and faster college players will be and what areas still need improvement.

After reflecting on four years of Gibbons basketball, Smith concluded it was the best fit for her game because “of just the people I’m around,” she said. “When we play against public schools, we know every time going in, we have to play harder, we have to play stronger. Coach Lowe, she’s helped me become such a better leader on and off the court. Coach always tell us we can do it.”

On her way out, Smith is parting with her high school without a fear in the world.

Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan