Sara-Rose Smith started playing basketball at a young age like many competitive athletes. At around the time she was seven years old, the Victorian native played in casual leagues which led to her rising in the ranks of the state program.
At 13-14 years of age, Smith started making a name for herself in the Australian basketball ranks. As a member of the Victorian state team she caught the attention of representatives from the Australian Institute of Sport to potentially join the esteemed Basketball Centre of Excellence (BCE).
She solidified BCE's offer during the 2018 U18 Australian Junior Championship. Smith averaged a near double-double of 9.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on the way to earning a gold medal for the Victoria Metro team.
Smith wasn't expecting this offer to come. In the middle of the tournament her basketball career changed to a new trajectory.
"In the middle of the tournament I got pulled into a room. I was basically told that I was offered a scholarship to attend the Centre of Excellence. It came out of nowhere", Smith recalls.
The hard work on the Victorian state team led to a pathway where her name would be put out there in not only the national basketball world, but international.
The BCE is a proven pipeline for Australian basketball players to get American recognition. Legends such as Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor went through this program. Current WNBA, WNBL, and Opals players got their opportunities because of the Centre of Excellence. Some of those players, in addition to Jackson and Taylor, include current Opals Bec Allen, Cayla George, Tess Madgen, Kristy Wallace, and Ezi Magbegor.
Having your name included in a list with elite, professional Australian basketball players and legends is not something to overlook. Smith stated, "obviously it's a huge honour. I didn't realise how huge of a deal it was at the time. They always said this program is meant for emerging Opals".
It's hard to find words to describe the feeling of being recognised as having the potential that embodies a future Opal at such a young age. Looking back on it years later brings Smith a sense of pride to this day.
Smith consistently progressed further to the ultimate goal of earning her way to the Opals. The BCE gave her an unmatched opportunity to further represent her country. She was selected to compete at the 2018 Youth Olympics where she earned the bronze medal on the first-ever Australian 3x3 team.
As she continued to excel in the national team ranks, she dominated the high school ranks for Lake Ginninderra College in 2019. She helped guide the team to an Australian School Championship with eye-popping averages of 20.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game.
While at the Centre of Excellence, Smith got the opportunity to play in their NBL1 league. As a 15-18 year old teenager playing against professional adults, it's always a challenge to prove yourself. But the benefits and experience outweigh any challenges.
"In the offseason, we're going up against all the NBL girls week in and week out. You're playing against bigger and stronger bodies. I just don't think it's really going to get a better experience than that", says Smith.
Aside from the physical, on-court development from playing against seasoned adults, the advice Smith received holds magnificent value.
"Being able to talk to [the women] after the games and get their perspective on the inside of the game was just a phenomenal experience in that sense", she recalled.
These women see the members of the Junior National Team kids rising in this prestigious pathway as mirrors of themselves. Some of those women were in Smith's shoes just a few years prior. Having the ability to speak to them, pick their brains on the process, and get their knowledge of the game is something Smith does not take for granted.
"I don't think I've had a better experience in my life. Receiving a bronze medal on the international stage with the Olympic rings on it is absolutely insane and something that I'm going to cherish forever", she commented.
Smith happened to meet a future college teammate in Mama Dembele while competing on the international stage by pure coincidence. The connections she made with teens her age led to the process of recruitment.
Smith's college recruitment was aided by Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Troy State University (now Troy University) alum, Samantha Tomlinson who runs Aussie Basketball USA Pathways. With Tomlinson's help, Smith was able to get in contact with many schools. However, getting over to the US was hard to do.
In accordance with NCAA rules there are only certain periods of time when a recruit can make unofficial visits with the perk of conversations about recruiting until you're a junior in high school. In terms of official visits, a recruit is only able to take one per school but the caveat is that coaches invite you for one.
Luckily for Smith, she was able to visit the University of Missouri and she fell in love. Straight away she knew that the Division 1, Power 5 program in Columbia, MO was, without zero hesitation, the place for her. She committed in October 2019 and knew Mizzou would be her home for the next four years.
When it came time for her to get to Missouri and be with the team, she found herself struggling to get to the US.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the whole world. The world shut down and you couldn't go anywhere. For an international athlete like Smith who was about to start her freshman year, it was a struggle to get herself a visa.
Due to travel restrictions between Australia and the United States in particular, she wasn't able to make it when student athletes returned to campus for summer workouts, even the COVID-restricted ones.
Eventually Smith made it to Missouri, albeit a few months behind the rest of the team. This set her back during her freshman year but that didn't stop her from receiving unequivocal support from the Mizzou program.
Smith knew what she signed up for when she decided to leave home at the height of the pandemic to play college ball overseas. The transition was rough and she couldn't really travel back home during breaks. Smith recalls, "The girls and coaches wrapped their arms around me. When I got here it was a tough transition but they made it as easy as they possibly could".
Smith is part of an exclusive group of Australian women who are a part of a Power 5 program this NCAA season. Combing through every single Division 1 basketball program back in November, it was found that a total of 125 Australian women are a part of a D1 team this season. Out of those 125, 26 are a part of a Power 5 program like Mizzou. That is around 4.8 per cent in the most elite conferences in college basketball.
Although 125 may not seem like much to people outside of Australia, it's a huge testament to the rise of international recognition of elite Aussie basketball players, which is not lost on Smith.
"I feel like we're a much smaller country but we play pretty well internationally. We compete in championships, the Olympics, and [World Cups]," she said.
"I think being a part of the number of women who get to come over here and [be a student athlete] really shows that the national program in Australia is pretty darn good and more people should be looking at that."
Sara-Rose Smith's role throughout her three years has led to a breakout 2022-2023 season for the Missouri Tigers. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this feature series in collaboration Rock M Nation.