Smith’s charges endured a harrowing 9-2 pool stage defeat to the world number four Black Sticks last weekend, conceding five consecutive short corners, but were much better able to mix it in the decider, which they reached with victories over Canada (5-0) and Chile (1-0).
With the experienced Shirley McCay going off injured, it was left to rookie trio Ali Meeke, Hannah Matthews and Yvonne O’Byrne to handle defensive duties, and Smith singled them out for praise.
“It was a big improvement from Saturday to Wednesday, we tackled and defended much better around the circle,” he said.
“Hannah, Ali and Yvonne were more decisive on the ball, especially close to the sidelines. It’s not a great position to be getting the ball, but they did better with it.
“It helped us break the New Zealand press more effectively.
“When a player comes into the panel we want to have patience with them and allow them to settle.
“(They’ve) shown real grit and determination.”
Meanwhile, Ireland’s U21 sides are both chasing EuroHockey Junior Championships II gold this weekend, hoping to win the B division and earn promotion to the top tier having both done so in the C division in 2012.
Women’s coach Dave Passmore praised his side’s ability to dig deep as they twice came from behind to draw with Scotland in a 3-3 tie in Vienna that sent them through to the promotion pool.
They will now be pitted against Ukraine (tomorrow, 5pm) and Italy (Sunday, 5pm) in a three-team group with the top two moving up to the top tier in 2016.
A similar scenario faces Jonny Caren’s men, who will hope Cork natives Nick Burns and Simon Wolfe — who have scored five of Ireland’s 12 goals so far between them — can continue to fire on all cylinders in Lousada.
They meet Italy (today, 2pm) and Scotland (tomorrow, 3pm) having already drawn 1-1 with Portugal; the Scots and Italians also tied meaning all four sides start level on a single point with two to be promoted.