Smith, Williams, unsung heroes in Boston

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Last updated: 03/25/2012 2:01 PM

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Men's Basketball
Lenzelle Smith, Amir Williams Play Unsung Hero Role in Boston
By Brandon Castel

BOSTON — Lenzelle Smith, Jr. could barely see out of his right eye following Ohio State’s 77-70 win over Syracuse Saturday.

Lenzelle Smith
Photo by Jim Davidson
Lenzelle Smith

The sophomore shooting guard was still in pain, his head throbbing from a vicious—albeit inadvertent—head butt from Orange guard Brandon Triche less than four minutes in to the first half of Saturday’s Elite Eight regional final at the TD Garden.

Triche spun around in the lane and his head connected with Smith’s eyebrow, splitting it wide open.

“I couldn't even really see out of my eye,” said Smith, a sophomore from Zion, Ill.

“We had to change up our defense, because I couldn't see from the right side. So I started taking anybody on the left.”

But not before he missed five minutes of the game while team doctor Grant Jones performed a minor surgery on Smith’s eye in the locker room. He was gushing blood like a boxer in the eighth round of a title fight, but he refused to stay in his corner, even after Jones put four stitches above his right eye.

Lenzelle Smith
Photo by Jim Davidson
Lenzelle Smith

“Coach told us coming into the game that this was going to be about toughness,” Smith said.

“Either we were going to break or they were going to break.”

After backing down during so many tough situations during the regular season, this young Ohio State team refused to get pushed around by Jim Boeheim and his 2-3 zone defense.

The Buckeyes kept attacking Syracuse, even with Smith in the locker room for a chunk of the first half, and even with star big man Jared Sullinger on the bench with two fouls for all but six minutes in the first half.

“With Amir Williams, it's funny because I think dating back to when he came back for Christmas, he's been tremendous in practice,” OSU head coach Thad Mata said.

“If you really look across the board when he's gone in when it mattered, he's done a heck of a job for us. At Kansas, up at Michigan, he gave us some great minutes, and he went in there tonight and did his job. That's what we needed him to do.”

Amir Williams
Photo by Jim Davidson
Amir Williams

The seldom-used freshman out of Beverly Hills, Mich. was forced into action in the first half after Evan Ravenel also picked up his second foul on a drive by Scoop Jardine with 8:45 to play in the first half.

The Buckeyes were in dangerous territory, having fallen behind for the first time since the opening tip of the game. Sullinger was still glued to the bench, with Matta unwilling to risk his big man picking up a third foul in the final nine minutes of the half.

On his first possession, Williams carelessly turned the ball over, and it looked like Syracuse was going to put the Buckeyes away in the first half with Sullinger watching helplessly from his seat next to the coaches.

But on the next possession, Williams got to the free throw line. He missed both shots, but quickly pulled down a defensive rebound at the other end. He would finish with three points, four rebounds, two blocks and an assist in nine minutes.

Amir Williams
Photo by Jim Davidson
Amir Williams

It was Williams' defense against the Syracuse guards on the pick-and-roll that allowed the Buckeyes to keep the game close, and eventually take the lead on a layup by Deshaun Thomas with 1:51 left in the half.

“With Amir, Amir always had talent,” said Sullinger, who goes against Williams every day in practice.

“It's just unfortunately he's playing behind me and Evan at the time, so watch out for him next year.”

Williams would not see the court in the second half, mainly because Sullinger was back in the game and dominating the Syracuse big men at the offensive end. He scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half, but the Buckeyes probably don’t win the game—at least not as easily—without the second half contribution from Lenzelle Smith.

With his eye still swollen to the point of blurring his vision, Smith stepped up and knocked down some big shots for Ohio State in the second half, including a trio of three-pointers at critical moments in the game.

“I knew other teams would concentrate on Jared and Deshaun, so I packed my offensive game in my bag and took it with me,” Smith said of his offensive explosion in Boston.

After scoring 17 points on Thursday in Ohio State’s 81-66 win over Cincinnati in the Sweet 16, Smith went for 18 against the Orange on Saturday. He scored all but two of those points in the second half, including one of the biggest shots of the game to give OSU a 55-51 lead.

“He hit a pretty tough three,” Boeheim said after the game.

“We did a good job on everybody but him.”

Smith also had a beautiful running floater that he had not shown in his offensive bag, but maybe the best thing he did was hit his free throws down the stretch. A 61 percent free throw shooter during the regular season, Smith knocked down 7-of-9 at the stripe Saturday, including all four of his free throws in the final 44 seconds of the game to send Ohio State to the Final Four.

“The thing that he's probably done the best job of is figuring out how to play off of everybody else and finding the seams,” Matta said.

“They're shading where Will (Buford) is and he can find that space. I've seen him continuing to work after practice and developing a little bit more every day.”

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