‘Big Game L’ Does More than Little Things
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Often times in sports, we, the viewers, want to paint players into certain roles. Sometimes those roles are clearly defined, like Dallas Lauderdale the shot-blocker or Jon Diebler the three-point shooter extraordinaire.
It is a little bit harder with players like David Lighty or, more recently, Lenzelle Smith Jr. We have a desire to label them, so we invent names like “glue guy” or “X factor,” but Ohio State coach Thad Matta has his own way of describing his sophomore shooting guard.
“We sort of need a Jack of all trades,” Matta said Sunday after Ohio State’s 64-49 win over Michigan in Columbus.
“There are so many times where a team is going to choose to guard us a certain way and scheme a certain defense. I think he is really understanding his role. Lenzelle is a winner. He wants to play well and he wants to help this basketball team. The energy type plays he made today was something that gave us a boost of energy. That’s the type of things I’d like for him to do.”
Smith did that and more Sunday as Ohio State turned a three-point halftime lead into a 15-point victory to take over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten Conference. He led the Buckeyes with 17 points and a career-high 12 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass.
“That’s ‘Big Game L’ for you,” classmate Jared Sullinger said with his patented smirk.
Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“When Lenzelle is rebounding the ball, he’s in tune with the defense and he’s pretty darn good. As you can see, he had eight offense rebounds and 17 points. He was just playing hard. He let the game come to him.”
The game comes two weeks after Smith’s breakout performance against Indiana. The left-handed shooting guard stroked five threes and scored a career-high 28 points in an 80-63 blowout of the Hoosiers back on Jan. 15.
The Wolverines weren’t leaving Smith unguarded the way Indiana did in the first half of that game, but they were naturally focused on slowing down Sullinger in the post.
“You’re trying not to put him in one on one situations,” Michigan coach Jon Beilein said.
“There’s all kinds of ways you can double in the post. I can tell you five or six of them.”
Sullinger admitted he was not as patient as he needed to be offensively, but the Buckeyes actually trailed the Wolverines 16-15 when their star big man went to the bench with two fouls at the 5:39 mark of the first half.
“When Jared picked up that second foul, it was go time for me,” said Smith, who scored nine of OSU’s 24 points in the first half and grabbed seven of their 18 rebounds.
“I knew if I slammed the boards just a little bit harder, I might come up with a few more rebounds.”
Sullinger was hit with a questionable second foul after he got tangled up with Michigan forward Evan Smotrycz going for a rebound. Blake McLimans nailed a three on Michigan’s next possession to give the Wolverines a 19-15 lead, but it wouldn’t last long.
Smith grabbed a rebound off a missed three by Deshaun Thomas and laid it in to make it a two-point game. He scored a layup to give the Buckeyes a 21-20 lead and Ohio State actually took a lead into halftime despite getting just five points from Sullinger and three from William Buford.
“He had a great feel for where the ball was coming off today and more importantly, he went,” Matta said.
“We told him before the game, you gotta go or you gotta get back. The ball found him. he’s got a knack for the basketball and that was good to see. I thought he also played great defense throughout the game.”
A 6-4 sophomore out of Zion, Ill., Smith found himself in the Buckeyes’ opening day starting lineup because of his ability to do the little things. He was not considered much of a scorer, but Matta was hoping his defense and rebounding would give Ohio State a boost.
Smith did an admirable job slowing down Tim Hardaway Jr. on Sunday. The Wolverines’ leading scorer did get to 15 points—nearly matching his season average—but he was only 5-of-12 shooting and 2-of-7 behind the arc.
It was really Smith’s work on the offensive glass, however, that proved to be the difference for the Buckeyes. Ohio State outrebounded their Michigan counterparts 38-29 overall and 14-10 on the offensive glass.
No one outside of Smith had more than five boards, including Sullinger, who played only 12 minutes in the first half.
“I knew that was going to be our edge, rebounding and just doing the little things, so I stuck to that early,” said Smith, who was two shy of matching his career high in rebounds (9) in the first half alone.
“Just finding how I can get myself into position to get those rebounds. Normally, we come in and hit shots. Today we didn’t make many shots so there was a better chance for me to get rebounds.”
Along with eight of the team’s 14 offensive boards, Smith also had 10 of the Buckeyes’ 16 second-chance points against the Wolverines, who struggled to keep OSU’s 6-4 shooting guard off the boards.
“He’s stronger than he probably looks,” Matta said.
“Today, a lot of them came his way and he was able to put them back in and finish.”
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