Former UT standout debuts as Catholic’s intern head coach

By Steve Williams

When JaJuan Smith came out of the coaches’ office after the game to talk to a reporter, a smile came across his face.

Perhaps it was a result of having just gone through his first game as the intern boys’ head basketball coach at Knoxville Catholic High School and the thrill and enjoyment he got from the experience, despite a 66-64 loss to visiting Walker Valley last week.

“It came down to the wire,” said the 38-year-old Smith, a former UT combo guard and sidekick of Volunteer great Chris Lofton. “We were a little out of shape with the weather and other things we are facing right now. I think it’s something that we can control though.”

It was Catholic’s first game since Jan. 9.

During the halftime break, Knoxville Catholic Principal Dickie Sompayrac addressed the coaching situation. He said Gabe Blair began the season as the team’s head coach and had coached through Christmas. Sompayrac added this was the first game Blair had not been on the bench.

“He (Blair) has decided to take a leave,” said Sompayrac. “(He’s) just sorting through some things. He’s still teaching here at the school, still employed at the school.”

Smith, Travis Mains (girls’ head coach) and Avery Jameson (boys’ assistant coach) were on the Catholic bench in the Jan. 23 game against Walker Valley.

On his way out after the game, Coach Mains said Smith was the “head man” and the person the reporter should talk to for post-game comments.

In his new role, Smith said: “I’m going to do my best. I’m going to try to get comfortable. This was my first game tonight (as head coach).”

Smith reportedly had been a high school associate head coach in Florida before his addition as an assistant coach at Catholic.

He said the game last week “brought back a lot of memories of being the leader of the young man and I’m going to try to bring the best out of them.”

Even though the non-conference game ended in a loss, Smith spoke with pride. “We got to undergo a lot of situations that’s going to happen in conference play and I felt like we learned from it and I’m ready to build on it.”

As for the Walker Valley team, Smith said: “They traveled in this weather. They got here and they handled business. I tip my hat to them.”

Smith played at McMinn County High and was at UT from 2004-2008, earning All-SEC honorable mention honors in 2008. He played pro ball mostly overseas from 2008 through 2017.

Catholic took the lead at the start and never trailed until the Mustangs started the fourth period with an 11-point run to move ahead 56-53 with 4:23 remaining.

After a WV turnover, Catholic’s Junior Eleam threw down a dunk to end the drought and pull the Fighting Irish within one at 3:31. But they never caught up. Two free throws by Cash Cates gave the Mustangs a six-point cushion (63-57) with 42.4 seconds to go.

The new rule on bonus free throws twice helped Walker Valley in the final minute.

But the Irish kept battling and still had a chance at the end.

Trailing by four in the closing seconds, Cade Murphy was fouled on a 3-point shot that just missed going in. With 1.3 seconds on the clock, he hit two foul shots and missed the third one intentionally. Catholic’s Carson Asbaty got the rebound in traffic, but couldn’t get a shot off as he lost his balance and fell.

Murphy, an impressive 6-5 sophomore guard, led the Irish with 20 points, including four of the team’s nine 3-pointers. Senior guard Caleb Asbaty added 17 points and sophomore guard Carson Asbaty 12 points.

Landon Shirk finished strong for Coach Will Campbell’s Mustangs (14-7) with nine of his 15 points coming in the final period. Turner Clayton chipped in 14 and Graham Campbell 11.

It will be all region games the rest of the way for the Irishmen. They play at Chattanooga Christian tonight (Jan. 29), at Baylor Tuesday and host arch-rival Webb on Thursday.