Point guard Jade Smith-Williams
“Our aim is to change the culture of the program, to do whatever it takes to win,” says point guard Jade Smith-Williams, here helping the Anteater women to an 81-77 win Feb. 3 over Cal State Fullerton. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

The UC Irvine women’s basketball team is closing in on its first winning season in nine years, and Jade Smith-Williams is a major reason why.

The senior point guard averages more than 15 points per game and leads the Big West Conference in assists, but Smith-Williams’ greatest contributions don’t show up in the box scores: leadership, toughness and dedication.

These characteristics are often the difference between winning and losing, and head coach Molly Goodenbour has been working to instill them in her players since taking over the moribund Anteater program three years ago.

“Jade is a leader on and off the court, and she has been extremely driven and focused to succeed. She embodies all we want to teach in our program — all the things you want in a leader,” Goodenbour says.

When she moved from Chico State to UCI in 2008, it was her good fortune that Smith-Williams, her point guard with the Wildcats, decided at the same time to transfer to UCI for a greater academic challenge.

Goodenbour began rebuilding the Anteater squad by bringing in transfers from other schools. Her linchpin has been Smith-Williams, whom she calls a coach on the floor: “Jade seems to know what I will say before I say it. She can impart on the court what I want to do, which is an invaluable asset.”

“Our aim is to change the culture of the program, to do whatever it takes to win,” Smith-Williams says. “We’re in a transition period, but we’re starting to establish that mentality.”

The team reached its high-water mark earlier this season, winning 10 of 11 games and sneaking into the top 25 national rankings for the first time in more than a decade. Starting March 8, the women will compete in the Big West Conference tournament.

Smith-Williams, however, will play her final game at season’s end and graduate with honors in June – earning a bachelor’s degree in criminology, law & society, with a minor in urban & regional planning. Her goal is to attend law school and one day become a lawyer, putting her leadership, toughness and dedication to good use off the court.

She has, in fact, already been doing that. Smith-Williams has served for four years on student athletic advisory councils at Chico State and UCI, helping coordinate community projects for the needy. At Chico State, she organized a town hall meeting of students, faculty and local politicians on the issues of race, class and gender in the 2008 presidential election.

“I have a passion for making the system more equitable, for minorities in particular,” says Smith-Williams, who last season was named a UCI Scholar-Athlete and garnered Academic All-Big West accolades.

Goodenbour adds: “I have no doubt Jade will succeed in whatever she sets out to do. She embodies everything a student-athlete should be.”