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Smith developing into MSU women’s most crucial player

Madeline Smith could not recall a time when high school coaches implored her to rebound.

It was not a focus for the Snohomish, Washington product, now Montana State’s starting center. Even with her 6-foot-2 frame and knack for overpowering opponents on offense, Smith was far more concerned with scoring.

“We had a couple really athletic girls who I think did a lot of it,” she admitted. “I mean, high school ball, you’re just running around shooting. I got away with not doing it as much, but that obviously can’t happen here. … I think that was one of the bigger shocks for me coming into college ball because I actually needed to do that.”

Prioritizing rebounding was all it took for Smith to become not just the team leader, but one of the Big Sky’s best. The sophomore’s nine per game are second in the conference and three more than the next highest teammate.

Smith’s efforts often have keyed victories and could be the difference in this afternoon’s matchup with rival Montana.

The Bobcats (9-8, 3-3 Big Sky) usually utilize four guards and one post, which makes Smith one of the most important contributors on both ends. She’s also the team’s second-leading scorer at 11 points per game.

“I think her skill-set is continuing to take off and she’s getting great chemistry with (point guard) Hannah (Caudill) right now,” said MSU head coach Tricia Binford, who added Smith’s consistency has earned her the starting nod over incumbent Blaire Braxton. “She’s focusing on (rebounding). … It has become a great strength for her and it was needed for this team.”

Smith played in every contest last year as a backup and averaged five points on 56 percent shooting. It was clear she would need to assume a larger role after graduation and departures left the frontcourt with little depth.

At the beginning of the season it was assumed that she and Caudill would establish a formidable pick-and-roll tandem. Smith poured in a career-high 23 against MSU Billings on Nov. 25 and 11 or more on three other occasions in the non-conference slate.

The Bobcats dropped three of their last four before Big Sky play began, however, and Binford switched from the swing to motion offense.

“It’s really nice to be able to post up and have the whole key to kind of do whatever and be able to kick out to people and have them spot up,” Smith said. “I played basically the previous offense my whole life, so it was a big difference.

“It was harder when Blaire and I were playing the four and the five because I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. Being able to play where I know how to play has been nice.”

Smith came here as a versatile threat and said she garnered a few Division I and II suitors.

Lately, however, she’s predominantly been operating under the rim to help complement the outside attack.

“I need to get (shooting) back because I have just been chucking them up lately and that’s not working out,” said Smith, who’s logged 14 or more in four of the past five games.

She’s shooting 52 percent, third in the Big Sky, but still laments some of the shots she’s missed at the rim recently.

“That needs to be consistent,” she added. “I don’t need to necessarily go off and hit 30 points like Peyton (Ferris) last year, but I need to be consistent in layups. I need to make those.”

LONERGAN RETURNS TO HOMETOWN: Bozeman native and former Bobcats volleyball player Caitlin Lonergan will return to Worthington Arena with the Grizzlies (9-8, 5-1) today.

The forward was the 2015 Gatorade Player of the Year in volleyball and led the Hawks to their first title. That winter, she helped Bozeman capture another championship in basketball.

Lonergan chose to play volleyball for former MSU head coach JJ Riley instead of continuing her basketball career with the Grizzlies, she told the Chronicle during her senior year. Binford said she also attempted to recruit the two-sport star.

Lonergan, who declined an interview through a UM representative this week, started 14 of 18 matches as a freshman at MSU and delivered her best performance against UM with 17 kills in a victory. She was suspended from the team late in the season and then transferred at the conclusion of the semester.

That made her eligible to play at the start of conference play, and she’s made an immediate impact. The 6-2 backup scored seven and 12 in her first two games and averages about six points and four rebounds.

“She’s incredibly strong, one of the strongest post kids I’ve been around,” Grizzlies head coach Shannon Schweyen said. “She practiced with us last year and then first semester and I was impressed with the things she did in practice. Being a volleyball player, she wasn’t familiar with terminology so that was a learning curve. She’s picking things up quickly.”

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Michael Appelgate can be reached at mappelgate@dailychronicle.com or 582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @mappelgate206.

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