Kentucky will be starting its season without its emotional leader.
Senior point guard Amber Smith is out indefinitely after suffering a knee injury in a pickup game, the school announced Wednesday. Smith injured the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee on campus in late July. She is expected to have surgery this week.
"We are going to do everything we can as a basketball program and her basketball family to support her and her rehabilitation," Coach Matthew Mitchell said in the release. "This is very difficult for Amber to go through entering her senior season. We are aware of how tough this is on her and we are confident she will work hard and get back on the court as soon as possible."
Through a UK spokesman, Smith declined to be interviewed before her surgery. Smith was one of four returning starters expected to be back to help UK build on momentum from last season when it advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
The diminutive but fiery guard started in all 36 games and was third on the team in scoring at 9.2 points. She also averaged 4.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds a contest.
Although no official polls are out, several pre-season prognosticators have UK ranked among the top 8-to-10 teams in the nation and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap among the country's top 10 players. In an interview before the extent of the injury was known, Dunlap referred to Smith as the team's "emotional leader."
"It all starts with her," Dunlap said last week. "She gets us going. She isn't afraid to say what she thinks ... people listen to her."
Mitchell, who is on vacation this week and couldn't be reached directly for comment, said in the release that it will be tough to replace Smith for however long she's out.
"Anyone who follows our program knows what a big part Amber Smith plays in what we do," Mitchell said. "Our entire team will have to pull together to make up for this huge loss."
While the loss of Smith will be a serious blow to the team, UK does have several returning guards who can help out, including Crystal Riley, last season's backup point guard. Other returning guards include SEC Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies, junior starter Keyla Snowden, senior Carly Morrow and redshirt freshman Bernisha Pinkett.
The Cats' first McDonald's All-American, incoming freshman Jennifer O'Neill, was rated among the nation's top high school point guards. UK's other freshmen — Maegan Conwright, Kastine Evans, Sarah Beth Barnette and LaQuinta Jefferson — played on the wing in high school.
It is the second torn ACL of her college career for Smith, who missed the final 12 games of her freshman season after tearing the ligament and meniscus in her other knee.
Cole to leave UK
Kentucky also announced Wednesday that Anna Cole is leaving the program, hoping to move to a school closer to her home in Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-7 center, who was the tallest player in UK women's basketball history, averaged just 3.3 minutes in nine games as a freshman last season. She averaged one point and 1.7 rebounds.
Cole, who was hampered by a foot injury late in the season, asked to be released from her scholarship, the school's release said. "I was very sad to hear of Anna's desire to leave our program," Mitchell said. "I do respect her desire to continue her college career closer to her family and her home in Wisconsin."