The players in the Ohio State locker room after the Buckeyes’ 81-66 victory against Cincinnati didn’t have any idea when questioned that Bearcats entered their Thursday night Sweet 16 contest with the Buckeyes ranked ninth in the nation in fewest turnovers.
What they did know was that forcing any team, let alone a Bearcats’ outfit that had averaged only 10.6 turnovers per game, into 18 such miscues was the recipe for the kind of success the Buckeyes tasted on a balmy Boston evening.
“Man, that’s great for us,” senior William Buford said after the game. “We played some pretty good defense if we turned them over 18 times and they only average 10. That’s great.”
Indeed it was. The Buckeyes’ ability to get Cincinnati to cough up the ball had an immeasurable impact as Ohio State turned a four-point second-half deficit into its final advantage.
Cincinnati turned the ball over five times in 10 possessions – ending four others with missed shots – in the time it took the Buckeyes to turn a 52-48 disadvantage into a commanding 65-53 lead.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t take care of the basketball,” UC head coach Mick Cronin said. “We gave ourselves no chance to win. They’re hard enough to guard, but with 18 turnovers we just gave ourselves no chance.”
As usual, sophomore point guard Aaron Craft was the head pest for Ohio State. He finished with six steals, tying a season-high mark set in the win at Minnesota, and Craft certainly picked the right spot to make his impact on the defensive end. Three of his six thefts came during OSU’s game-clinching 17-1 run.
“It helps out,” Craft said. “Not just getting the steal but not letting them get a look at the basket, especially as great as they were feeling offensively. They were not knocking down a lot of shots, and offensive rebounds is their great edge as well. Without them shooting the ball, it takes away a lot of what they’re good at and it gives us another opportunity to look at the basket.”
Craft’s defense was a major part of why the Buckeyes went from giving up an astounding 27 points in the first 8:26 of the second half to just one in the ensuing 6:39. It wasn’t all, though, as Sullinger had a steal and OSU forced Cincinnati to miss all four of its shots from the field.
Head coach Thad Matta spent one of the long timeouts during Cincinnati’s run reminding his team that it needed to find its defensive intensity, at one time getting that point across rather vociferously. However, Buford said the exhortations to play better defense simply weren’t needed.
“He didn’t have to tell us,” the team’s lone senior said. “We knew we were lacking defensively in the beginning of the season half and we had to pick it up. Eventually we decided to play defense and it worked out for us and we came through with the victory.”
Smith Shows Up:
Three minutes into the game with Cincinnati and with his team trailing 5-2, Lenzelle Smith Jr. took the ball on the right side of the court, made a nice head fake, drove the baseline and put up a one-handed scoop shot with his left mitt that went through the bucket.
That shot showed two things about the Ohio State sophomore guard – he showed up confident and brought his offensive “A” game to boot.
By the time the game was over, Smith had put up 14 points – his third-best offensive showing of the season – on 6 of 7 shooting. The Illinois native was an excellent 3 for 4 from beyond the arc as well.
“Tonight, I was just feeling good. I held my follow through, which I haven’t been doing lately, and today I was able to knock down some shots,” he said.
Smith added that he there was a good chance he would have to make an impact heading into the contest as Cincinnati – a smaller team that starts four guards – was likely going to have to collapse its defense on forecourt players Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas in what turned out to be a vain effort to keep those two from dominating.
“I figured they were going to double-team Deshaun, which I think they did, and they were going to try to battle Sully, which they did,” he said. “I knew that I was going to have to step up on offense. When I have games like that, I come out and play big and I know that scoring is my first option. When I do things like that, I have good nights.”
Smith’s impact was far from done when it came to putting the ball through the hoop, too. He added five rebounds, two assists and two steals and didn’t have a turnover on the evening.
“When he gets going, this whole basketball team, we kind of feed off of Lenzelle,” Sullinger said. “When Lenzelle pretty much came to the huddle, he kind of spoke throughout the huddle, and I thought that was tremendous. I think we responded off his leadership today and his defensive intensity and just his ability to get to the basket and share the basketball.”
Last year’s Ohio State team, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, couldn’t handle its first gut punch, dropping its Sweet 16 contest with Kentucky after posting huge wins against its first two opponents.
That’s not been the case at all this postseason. Though the Buckeyes had little trouble with opening-round foe Loyola (Md.), Gonzaga pushed OSU to the limit before the Scarlet and Gray pulled away late.
Then came the win against Cincinnati in which the Bearcats’ run early in the second half seemingly had Ohio State on the ropes.
The good news for fans this time around is that the Buckeyes’ jaw clearly isn’t made of glass.
“I think a lot of it has to do with what we went through throughout the year,” Craft said. “We lost a lot of close games like this where some guys punched at us and we kept backing up. But from the Big Ten tournament on, we try to stand our ground as much as possible.
“We understand that these are great teams that are going to go on runs. It’s going to happen. We just can’t get too down on ourselves, try to stay as positive as possible, and it worked today.”