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Smith, West Chester men advance in PSAC playoffs

03/05/2024, 12:30am EST
By Josh Verlin

By Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
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WEST CHESTER — Robert Smith doesn’t know what the future holds. He’s just focused on the now, and making one more run.

The West Chester University senior guard has been a standout for three years in a Golden Rams uniform, rocketing up the program’s all-time scoring list. He’s collected league accolades, been a team captain, and will graduate this May with his degree in business management. 

There’s just one major thing missing from his resume.


Robert 'Man-Man' Smith has scored over 1,300 points in three seasons. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“A championship,” he said. “Everything else I got. The only thing left is a championship.”

There’s no doubt that would make Smith a legend in West Chester. The Golden Rams men haven’t won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) championship since 1959, haven’t been in the title game since 2016. A run this year won’t be easy, WCU having to win four games in the span of six days to take down the title this upcoming Sunday.

The West Chester men got that run started on Monday night, using a strong defensive-led run to get past Shepherd University (W.Va.) in a first-round game at Hollinger Field House.

Smith came to West Chester four years ago out of now-closed Bishop McDevitt High School, where he finished second in Lancers history in scoring with 1,203 points. The muscular 6-foot-1 left-hander surpassed that total in his college career last month; with 17 points against Shepherd, he moved into a tie for 15th place in West Chester’s career scoring list (1,314 points).

He’s gotten all of that production in just three seasons, his freshman year gone due to the COVID pandemic. 

“That’s just who I am, I’m just a scorer,” he said. “Don’t matter how long the game’s going to go, if I don’t score for five, six, seven minutes, it doesn’t matter, I’m still going to find a way to score.”

That was clear against Shepherd. Smith had just two points at halftime but went off in the second half, finishing second to junior Elijah Allen (21 points) in the scoring column. His 3-pointer with 5:49 left made it a 16-point lead, and a left-handed driving layup with 79 seconds left helped the Rams hold on; he also tacked on two foul shots with two seconds left. 

“He gets in there and knocks down a couple big shots and everybody’s confidence starts to rise and they follow him,” West Chester head coach Damien Blair said. “He’s a Philly guard — tough, nasty, can make plays from all different parts of the floor, defends. He’s huge and hopefully he continues to do what he’s been doing as we come down this home stretch.”

Trailing by nine with two minutes left in the first half, West Chester locked in to play some of its best defense of the season. The Golden Rams held Shepherd without a point for more than an eight-minute span, a 17-0 run that finally ended with under 14 minutes left in regulation. 

It was 13 straight successful defensive possessions, including three turnovers and 11 missed shots.

“I want to say maybe four or five games ago we just weren’t defending well, we weren’t in the right spots and every day we’ve been working on being in the right spots,” Blair said. “Winning or losing is a difference of maybe two steps or an angle. Tonight they were in those spots, the angles were good, there might have been two or three times where we didn’t execute our drops, but getting out on shooters, on the catch, trying to get a hand over the ball, that was big tonight. 

WCU dominated a large portion of the second half. The hosts went up by double digits for the first time on a Joshua Walker layup with 9:21 left, and Smith’s triple gave them their biggest lead. Shepherd made a push down the stretch, getting within five points with 25 seconds left, but West Chester closed the game out by going 5-of-6 at the stripe.

East Division top seed Lock Haven awaits on Wednesday in the quarterfinals. The Eagles have won both matchups this season but only by a total of four points, including on a shot with four seconds left in a one-point defeat on Feb. 3.

“Both games came down by the wire, we were up one with 30 seconds left, we just couldn’t get a stop,” Smith said. “Now I feel like we came together more, we’re more of a team now, we know what to do, so we’re going to go up there and take care of business.”


Smith (above) and WCU are in the PSAC quarterfinals. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Smith’s status as a fourth-year senior on the team, though he’s a junior by eligibility, makes him somewhat unique for the Rams. He was one of four freshmen Blair brought in in his 2021 class; as of this season, he’s the only one of the four left, and the only member of the team who was there when he arrived.

He’s stuck with it through a host of arrivals and departures, including his former McDevitt teammate Jamil Manigo, who left the team midway through last season. Blair and his staff bolstered the lineup with a number of Division I and grad transfers — this year’s group goes a dozen deep or more on a regular basis — but not many have been in West Chester for longer than a couple seasons.

“My team, they depend on me a lot,” Smith said. “All the freshmen, sophomores [...] they expect me to go out and perform every game. I’ve got to do my part at all times because they’re looking up to me, and I’m a leader.”

Smith, whose mother Jamie Dean played ball at Delaware State, said he’s planning on a career in athletics, potentially in a sports agency; he’s less concerned about how he stays around sports and more concerned with that he stays around sports. First up, of course, is a playing career that’s not close to over.

It would likely take a run to the PSAC championship for West Chester to get back to the Division II tournament for the first time since 2019. If the Golden Rams fall short, Smith will have a decision to make. 

As an experienced college guard who’s proven he can score from all three levels, he’d have a chance to do a graduate transfer year at a Division I school, something that’s becoming more common for D-II grads in the transfer portal era as D-I coaches aim to bring in maturity and experience. 

It’s a path that worked well for recent WCU grad Kyle McGee, who’s currently starting at point guard for Sacred Heart, among others. Or he can come back to West Chester, aim for another championship, and an almost-guaranteed spot in the top five on WCU’s career scoring list; catching Blair (2,025 points), currently in second, seems unlikely.

Blair called Smith’s decision “the elephant in the room” and said the two have talked about it a it, the coach ready to support whatever it is Smith does, but Smith isn’t ready to discuss it publicly.

“I ain’t ready to look into that right now, I’m just ready to keep getting wins and wins, and go as far as we go,” he said. “It’s playoff time and it’s all about my team right now.”


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