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Kalei Smith: Beast (of burden)

PHS junior Kalei Smith dunks during a 53-36 win over Lyman on Feb. 14. PHS junior Kalei Smith dunks during a 53-36 win over Lyman on Feb. 14. Tribune photo by Dante Geoffrey

Powell’s highlight player looks to help No. 4 Panthers run the table 

Being the hottest high-school athlete in your town can be all it’s cracked up to be. Except when it isn’t.

Kalei Smith is experiencing both sides as he tries to lead the Powell Panthers basketball team to a state title in his junior year.

He enjoys the fanfare, the cheering, the town’s young fans and the attention he’s started to draw from those with ever-important college connections.

“It’s exciting having little kids line up and giving you high fives and wanting to come watch your games,” Smith said. “It definitely drives me to be better and realize that people look up to you and know who you are.”

If you’ve followed Wyoming prep hoops at all, you know Kalei Smith.

Smith leads the Panthers and the Western Conference in scoring with 20.3 points per game and is second in Class 3A, behind only Wheatland’s Kendrick Jackson (21.1 ppg). He broke Powell High School’s single-game scoring record of 36 points by netting 39 against Cody in a regional tourney loss, and is known for his crowd-pleasing breakaway dunks.

But is it too much?

Even Smith, who shoots an efficient 51 percent from the field (including a conference-leading 41 percent from 3-point range), worries it might be.

“Some nights I feel like I’m shooting too much,” he said on Tuesday morning.

By pure volume, that argument could hold water. Smith’s 351 field goal attempts this season (100 from beyond the arc)  almost double that of Powell’s second-most active shooter (junior Carter Baxter has 187 FG attempts).

And Smith’s shot count doesn’t go unnoticed.

“People joke with me all the time about how I take too many shots,” Smith said. “Sometimes I kind of take it as a criticism.”

But it’s hard to criticize when more than half of those shots go in. And Smith has proven over and over that he is the team’s best shot-creator, not afraid to shoot to win (or lose) the game.

“If we’re not doing good and if I’m having a bad game, then I feel like it’s, ‘Oh it’s ’cause Kalei had a bad night, that’s why we lost,’” he said. “I do feel those pressures.”

But it’s not as if Smith is resistant to head coach Chase Kistler’s team philosophy.

“We need to spread it out more rather than it just be a couple players,” Smith urged.

He knows that, for the Panthers to reach their goal of a state title, the offense has to come from a variety of Panthers from a variety of spots on the floor.

And at times that unselfish mindset can fuel Smith to be even harder on himself.

“We always talk about it being a team and having to share the ball,” Smith said. “When I do take that many shots, or I’m having a good game where I’m feeling good and I’m shooting a lot I do think, ‘Maybe I should slow it down a little bit and spread the ball around.’”

The last thing Powell can afford, though, is having a self-conscious Smith during the state tournament, and he says he won’t be hesitant when the ball is in his hands.

“If I’m on, I’m probably going to just shoot when I can,” Smith said. “Not necessarily just throw stuff up that’s not a good shot, but when I get it in a good situation I’ll definitely shoot it.”

The Panthers open the tourney at 9 p.m. today (Thursday) against Wheatland, the East’s No. 1 seed and the No. 2-ranked team in Class 3A.

Powell was in a season-long battle with Cody and Lander (who finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively) but barely earned the West’s fourth seed with a 60-56 overtime win over Jackson in the consolation bracket of the West Regional Tournament on Saturday.

A 73-60 loss to Cody in the semifinals pushed the Panthers to the brink of elimination.

“We just ran out of juice and couldn’t stay with them in the fourth quarter,” said Smith of the loss to the rival Broncs.

Despite the disappointing playoff push, Smith said Powell is still in a good position going into the state tourney.

“We’re actually pretty confident,” Smith said. “We feel like we could actually sweep the East ... one through four.”

Teams from the East have lit up the scoreboards this season, more-so than their western counterparts, but Smith said the Panthers are ready to run if they need to.

“We like running the ball, and most teams on our side like to slow it down and keep everyone in a half-court offense,” Smith said. “As long as we have our transition defense we should be pretty good against Wheatland and whoever else.”

The fatigue that sapped Powell’s legs and contributed to a 54-42 loss against Star Valley in the West’s third-place game shouldn’t be a problem in Casper.

“It kind of depends day to day,” said Smith, who uses the whirlpool in the mornings and after practices to relax his muscles and fight late-season soreness. “We’re in pretty good shape, so it’s not too harsh unless you have three games right in a row.”

If Powell can get by Wheatland and then the winner of Lander-Glenrock, there’s a decent chance a fourth meeting with Cody could decide the state championship.

It would be another chapter in the never-ending Powell-Cody storyline.

“Personally, I want another crack at Cody,” Smith said. “I feel like we definitely have the potential to beat them.”

And despite the 1-2 record versus the Broncs this season, Smith said, “I feel like we kind of have their number.”

The Panthers took the season’s first matchup in Cody 51-45, but lost 69-56 in Powell before the semifinal loss in Mountain View.

“When they were here they just shot lights out,” Smith said. “Mentally, we need to get to the point where we can keep our focus to what the goal is.”

The goal is to be the fourth Panther athletics team to win a state title since November, and if that means playing Cody again, so be it.

Anything can happen during three days in Casper, and while a title is far from certain for Smith and the Panthers, one thing is guaranteed.

He’ll give it his best shot.

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