After Stepping Outside the ‘O,’ Lenzelle Smith Refocused on Being ‘Glue Guy’
By Brandon Castel
LOS ANGELES — There were so many big moments during Ohio State’s 73-70 win over Arizona on Thursday.
Plays like Deshaun Thomas hitting a key three at the end of the first half were monumental in keeping the Buckeyes alive for their second-half surge. But even that was overshadowed by the heart-stopping three from LaQuinton Ross in the final two seconds of the game.
Shots like that make headlines. The players who make them end up on Sportscenter and on the cover of newspapers. They become heroes, immortalized and imitated by 10 years old across the country in their backyard.
“I think every kid dreams about this in the backyard or in the front yard or out on the street shooting the ball,” Ross said in the locker room after hitting the biggest shot of his life.
“You count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and you put that shot up and hit it.”
It’s every player’s fantasy to hit the game-winning three to send their team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Not many kids are in the backyard practicing the steal that kept Arizona from getting off a potential game-tying prayer at the buzzer.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“Probably not, but my team noticed and coach Matta immediately came and talked to me,” said Lenzelle Smith, a junior guard who tipped away the Wildcats’ fullcourt inbounds pass to Solomon Hill at the buzzer.
“As big as the shot was, he told me how big the stop was. Guys like Hill, chances are if he got that ball he would have made that shot.”
There was a point in this season where Smith would have wanted to take that last shot instead. A time where he would have felt he deserved it.
“It wasn’t so much my points, maybe touches,” Smith said while sitting in front of his locker at the Staples Center after the game Thursday.
“I have a tendency to pass up wide-open shots and I tend to think guys are supposed to do that for me.”
With Ross emerging as a legitimate No. 2 scorer, and Sam Thompson playing some of his best basketball at Ohio States, touches have been limited for Smith. So has playing time. After playing over 30 minutes a game during Ohio State’s Final Four run a year ago, Smith had seen his minutes slip in recent weeks.
He averaged only 23 minutes a game during Ohio State’s Big Ten Tournament run. He made only five of his 18 shots in Chicago and missed all seven of hits attempts from behind the arc.
“I was feeling a little guilty, like I felt like I let my team down,” he admitted.
“I feel like I wasn’t doing my job, doing my best to help this team win. I would say that was a little bit selfish.”
That self-centered attitude came to a breaking point in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Smith scored 12 points in 25 minutes against Iona, but he was no longer doing the little things the Buckeyes needed.
He had stepped outside the “O,” which had kept this team together throughout a bumpy season, and his coach wasn’t happy about it.
“I was worrying about how many points I had and why I was wasn’t scoring, but I can't be like that,” Smith acknowledged.
“I've got to be the glue guy, the X-factor who does some of the things people overlook to help people win games.”
It’s a thankless job.
Smith had to watch Ross, a sophomore who wasn’t even allowed to be on the court during last year’s Final Four run, become the hero of Thursday night’s win over Arizona.
Ross got the glory, reporters swarming around his locker to hear from the troubled kid who overcame a tough freshman year to become the savior of Ohio State’s tournament success.
Meanwhile, Smith had to live with the satisfaction he had made a tremendous impact on the game in a completely different, and often thankless, way.
“He did a great job yesterday coming in and playing defense, getting easy baskets in transition,” point guard Aaron Craft said.
“It’s not about who’s getting the most points, it’s about everyone doing their job. That’s the biggest thing to remind people. As much as people want to be successful as individuals, when our team is successful everyone looks pretty good.”
Smith only scored six points on Thursday. Hardly enough to even garner a mention during the game recap, but they were big points. All of them came in the second half, as the Buckeyes recaptured the lead and held on for dear life.
His first layup tied the game at 38 in the opening two minutes of the second half. His one-handed dunk gave the Buckeyes a 46-42 lead with 13 minutes to play, but Smith’s contribution to the win went a lot deeper than his scoring.
Smith also grabbed eight rebounds, including three on the offensive glass, against the Wildcats, and when Solomon Hill was torching the OSU defense in the second half, Smith stepped to the forefront.
“Give me him. Give me 44, I want him’,” he told his coaches.
“They were saying no at first, but I was saying give me him. I take pride in our defense and I knew wasn’t going to let him beat us.”
Ohio State had taken a 10-point lead midway through the second half when Hill started to take over the game. He scored nine-straight points for the Wildcats, cutting the deficit down to four with a layup at the 8:42 mark.
“I knew I could stop him from scoring,” said Smith, a 6-4 guard out of Illinois.
“If not stop him, I knew I could make it tough on him. I know he wasn’t going to drive down the middle of the lane and dunk on us. I knew that for a fact.”
With Smith on him, Hill would not score another point the rest of the game. When they tried to get the ball to him at the end, Ohio State’s junior was ready, swatting away any chance Arizona had at sending the game to overtime.
It’s the kind of play that goes unnoticed, unless you happen to be a fan of the glue guy.
“I think he absolutely can be that guy for us,” Craft said.
“Especially with the experience he has. He played great in the two games we played last year at this time. Hopefully he continues to do that.”
According to Craft, Smith has been more upbeat this week and more locked in to what is going on during practice and during huddles. In other words, he’s stepped back inside the ‘O.’
“I want to make sure we win,” Smith added.
“At the end of the day, if we get to walk off with a victory, that’s what I’m about.”
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