UD’s Malachi Smith after 11-game absence: ‘I just wanted to get back on the court’

Sophomore point guard returns from ankle injury suffered in Bahamas

Malachi Smith sat on the edge of the cold tub in the Donoher Center with both feet soaking about 40 minutes after the Dayton Flyers beat Davidson 68-61 at UD Arena.

Smith had not done an interview since spraining his left ankle in the final moments of the second half on Nov. 25 during a 79-75 overtime loss to Brigham Young in the Battle 4 Atlantis. He missed 11 games, returned to action on Tuesday and then spoke to the Dayton Daily News about his experiences over the last eight weeks.

“It meant a lot (to play again),” Smith said. “Coming back from injury again, it was a lot. It was rough these past couple of months. I’m just happy to play basketball. I just wanted to get back on the court.”

Smith received a standing ovation from the crowd when he entered the game at the 15:57 mark.

“We know the Flyer fans love Mali, and we do, too,” Dayton forward Toumani Camara said. “He’s one of our brothers. So being able to see him come back on the court and play strong and play good minutes, it brings positive energy to everybody — not only the fans but also the whole coaching staff and players.”

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Smith had five points and five assists in 15 minutes. He worried he would be thinking about the ankle when he got in the game. That wasn’t the case. He felt confident.

In the first half, Smith drove to the rim and swung a pass to the corner to find Mustapha Amzil, who made a 3-pointer. He also assisted Amzil on a 4-point play that started an 8-0 run after Dayton fell behind 23-16.

Smith missed a short floater in the first half but got his second shot of the game, a jump shot in the paint, to fall in the second half. He also made 2 of 2 free throws with 57 seconds to play to give Dayton a 66-59 lead.

Smith took the first step toward putting that terrible moment from the Bahamas behind him. He turned his ankle as he drove to the rim in the final seconds with the game tied. He screamed in pain as he lay on the ground and was carried to the locker room.

“It was bad,” Smith said. “I was just like, ‘No way this is happening again.’ I was just hoping it wasn’t too bad. I’m glad I didn’t need surgery. I had a chance to come back this season. That’s what I was praying for.”

Smith said the pain was worse than what he felt when he injured his other ankle in October. That injury cost him most of the preseason practices and the first three games. This pain was worse than his previous left ankle injury in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament last March. He walked off the court with help after that one.

This time, Smith had to think about whether he would come back this season. The idea of redshirting was an option, but he didn’t think about it too much, he said, because he thought he could come back and still have enough time to make an impact in conference play. Twelve games remain in the regular season after Tuesday, starting with a 12:30 p.m. game at George Washington on Saturday.

“I feel I can help my teammates a lot,” Smith said. “We’ve got a great team.”

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Smith said he will probably have surgery after the season to correct his reoccurring ankle issues. He thinks he will only need surgery on his left ankle. It’s still up in the air.

“It depends on how the season goes and how I’m feeling,” he said.

Dayton (13-6, 5-1) bounced back from a 63-62 loss Friday to Virginia Commonwealth. Smith wished he could have played in that game and hoped to return even earlier for the Jan. 10 game at Fordham. He wanted to play in the Bronx, his hometown, for the first time since high school.

Smith had to think of the bigger picture, of staying healthy the rest of the season so he can help the team during the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, N.Y. His ankle was strong enough to play against Fordham and VCU, but he hadn’t had enough practice time to feel ready.

“I probably could have played (against Fordham), but I wasn’t in the best shape,” Smith said.

Smith felt he came back too soon from his last ankle injury. He didn’t have the conditioning and the practice repetitions to play his best.

Smith tallied three assists and five points in 20 minutes in his first appearance against Robert Morris in the fourth game of the season and then averaged 5.3 points and 5.0 assists in three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis while playing 30-plus minutes each game. Dayton lost to Wisconsin, North Carolina State and Brigham Young with him in the starting lineup.

Without Smith in the 11 games before Tuesday, Dayton was 9-2. They could have used him Friday as the turnovers mounted against VCU, but now they’re just happy he’s back.

Dayton had a new rotation on the court whenever Smith and Koby Brea played together Tuesday because Brea was sidelined by an illness when Smith made his four appearances in November. When Kobe Elvis returns, it will be the first time all the returning guards from the 2021-22 season have been active this season at the same time. Elvis has missed 12 straight games with a knee injury but has been in uniform for the last two games.

“It’s fun to have our brothers coming back,” said forward Mustapha Amzil, who led Dayton with 19 points against Davidson. “We’ve got one still missing: Kobe (Elvis). It was a lot of fun to see the big smile on (Smith’s) face when he got that first layup.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Dayton at George Washington, 12:30 p.m., USA Network, 1290, 95.7

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