CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- A loss to Appalachian State in the Southern Conference Women's Basketball Tournament marked the final collegiate game for four University of Tennessee at Chattanooga seniors.
With one exception.
Kiara Smith faced that harsh reality a year ago, yet still managed to make an impact on the team this season without every taking the court.
"Kiara is awesome. She's just a great person with an awesome personality," said Lady Mocs' head coach Wes Moore. "And let me just say, Kiara was a great player coming out of Model High down in Georgia. I know she turned down Michigan State to come here."
Unfortunately the 5-foot-10 sharpshooting guard never got the chance to fully display her abilities on the college level. She redshirted in 2008-09 and played sparingly in each of the next two seasons, but battled knee problems along the way.
"She came in with some knee issues, but it got worse when she got here. It just really limited what she was able to do," Moore said.
After undergoing two knee surgeries in a three-year span, doctors advised Smith to give up the game at the end of the 2010-11 season.
Her playing career ended after just 42 games, including five starts, with 93 total points and 49 rebounds.
"It was kind of tough," Smith said about walking away. "It was emotional, especially our first home game. It was crazy not running out there with the girls. But I learned to adjust."
Teammates and coaches helped in that transition.
After talking with his staff and players, Moore decided to offer Smith a job as one of the team's managers. It wasn't a spot on the roster, but it was a chance to stay around the program, her friends and the game she loved.
"At first I thought he was just kidding around because we joke around a lot, but he asked me again and I really thought about it," Smith said. "I realized it was a good opportunity and it showed Coach Moore still wanted me around."
Smith remained on the bench for games and on the bus for road trips. She got to celebrate the wins and help console after losses.
However, the chance to continue sharing in those experiences came with some very unique differences.
In her new role, she handed out water bottles, folded towels and collected discarded clothing while sitting on the bench. And she helped pack and load the team's equipment before getting on the bus.
"For a kid to go from being a player that has her laundry pretty much done for them, to be the one to collect the laundry, wash it and prepare it for everybody else, that's tough," Moore said. "You go from being served to being a servant, and it can be hard for a kid to do that.
"But Kiara has handled it with grace and style."
That grace and style was not lost on a roster full of young players adjusting to the rigors and the expectations of playing on the college level. She offered another veteran influence on the bench and had knowledge and experiences to share.
As a final sendoff, the Lady Mocs included her in their Senior Night festivities two weeks ago before a win over SoCon regular season co-champ Davidson.
It was a special moment for Smith. She may have lost the ability to play basketball, but she will never lose the relationships and the memories it produced.
"I had a great time with people I really truly learned to care about," she said. "I know that I have a bright future ahead after basketball, so it all turned out to be the best thing for me."