Elon's campus in North Carolina is often listed as one of the most beautiful in the country. But not much looked prettier to coach Charlotte Smith than seeing "Elon" pop up on the NCAA tournament bracket last season.
It wasn't a surprise; the Phoenix had the automatic berth with their 78-60 victory over James Madison in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament. Still, it was a long-awaited moment for a program that went Division I in 1999 and 18 years later made its first Big Dance appearance.
Smith, who is in her seventh season at Elon, grew up about 2½ hours southwest of the school, in Shelby, North Carolina. She starred for the North Carolina Tar Heels from 1991 to '95, played in the ABL and then the WNBA from 1996 to 2006, and was an assistant for her alma mater 2002-11.
Then she took over at Elon, and had winning records her first five years. But everything came together last season, when the Phoenix went 27-7.
"It is amazing to see so many things have come to fruition with our program," Smith said. "A lot of that starts with the way we talk and think about the program. My thing is, you win in your mind before you win in real life.
"Even though we're considered a mid-major, I tell the players, 'Let's go in and approach this like we're a big-time program and we have a chance to win as much as anybody we compete against.'"
The Phoenix took that mindset into the NCAA tournament's first round against West Virginia, the Big 12 tournament champion, before falling 75-62.
"I've gone back and watched that game quite a few times," Smith said. "You get down to the last 4½ minutes of the game, and we're right there. Then we let a player get loose in transition twice for 3-pointers.
"Drawing from those experiences, we realize we are so close. But we have to do all the little things right."
The Phoenix lost three starters from that team but returned leading scorer Shay Burnett, a guard who's one of three seniors for Elon. Those seniors are kept busy mentoring six freshmen and three sophomores; there are no juniors. Burnett is the team's second-leading scorer (13.4 PPG) behind 6-foot-4 sophomore center Ra'Shika White (14.3 PPG).
"She is one of those players that has so much potential, and I don't think she can understand how good she can be," Smith said of White. "Every now and then, you'll see those sparks of greatness."
The Phoenix are 7-2 thus far, with losses to Iowa of the Big Ten and Wake Forest of the ACC. Elon has defeated SEC foe Alabama and is coming off a 75-58 victory over fellow mid-major Davidson on Wednesday. ACC foe NC State is up next on Dec. 16.
That's a strong nonconference slate for the Phoenix.
"The only way you find out what you're made of is to test yourselves," Smith said. "Our six freshmen have been working extremely hard to try to shorten the learning curve, and I'm pleased with everything I've seen from them so far. We've relied a lot on our seniors to lead the way and encourage them. We've all had to learn patience."
"My thing is, you win in your mind before you win in real life."Charlotte Smith
Smith's success has been a big positive for Elon, which joined the CAA before the 2014-15 season. Next year, the school will open a new arena, the Schar Center, for men's and women's hoops and volleyball.
And Smith remains close with her mentor, North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell, who is approaching her 1,000th career win. Smith said taking over at Elon has helped her appreciate Hatchell even more.
"I'm grateful for the opportunity to become a head coach because I can really relate to how much of her heart and her soul she's had to pour out to build a program," Smith said.
They're forever connected in the best moment in North Carolina women's hoops history: Smith's national-championship-winning 3-pointer with less than a second left in 1994.
Smith was at American Airlines Center in Dallas this past March sitting near half court when Mississippi State's Morgan William hit the buzzer-beater that upset UConn. She said it brought back wonderful memories for her, but "The Shot" for Smith is never all that far from her mind.
People remind her about it all the time, and she uses it as a teaching moment for her Elon players. But what she tells them is less about her making the shot and more about what came before that in facing Louisiana Tech in the final.
"I talk about how it's not how you start but how you finish," Smith said. "A lot of people don't recall this, but I couldn't throw the ball in the ocean in the first half of that game. I had zero points, and I took quite a few shots.
"Then I came out the second half and scored 20. And there were other ways I could contribute, like in rebounding. And dives on the floor, the hustle plays."
In fact, Smith finished with 23 rebounds, which remains a championship-game record. And she, along with teammate Marion Jones, went to the floor to tie up the ball just before time expired, giving the Tar Heels their last possession.
But the lesson doesn't end there.
"After we tied up the ball, I remember so vividly looking up at the clock, and my heart sank," Smith said. "I was thinking, 'What can you do in seven-tenths of a second?' I felt like we had lost the game. I felt this deep sense of grief overcome me."
Smith said she was "out of it" mentally during the first huddle, when North Carolina drew up a lob play to center Sylvia Crawley. But when inbounds passer Stephanie Lawrence saw that Louisiana Tech had that covered, she called a timeout. Again, Smith felt in a fog during that huddle. She had to ask Crawley what the play was as they returned to the court.
Crawley told Smith, "Charlotte, it's for you."
Smith was a star player, but nerves hit: "It felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders." She didn't have that much time to worry, though. She took the pass from Lawrence, launched the shot ... and secured her place in NCAA tournament history.
She tells the Phoenix to remember that: Never let up until the horn sounds. What can you do in seven-tenths of a second? You can win an NCAA title, despite those moments earlier in the game when it seemed nothing was going right.
"That's where I think I help my players, talking about my struggles as a player and how you overcome those things," Smith said. "I'm blessed to have so many stories to draw from to help give them the encouragement they need to be the players they can be."