By the time the media strolled into the Ohio State locker room in the moments after Ohio State’s last-second win over Iowa State last weekend in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Thad Matta’s message to Lenzelle Smith Jr. had already been sent.
Though Smith was celebrating with his team – who had just been sent to the Sweet 16 by a last-second three by Aaron Craft – he was only moments removed from a hardhearted yelling from Matta regarding the way he had been playing.
“I was feeling a little guilty, like I felt like I let my team down,” Smith said. “I was not doing my best to help this team win. That was selfish. I can't be like that. I've got to be the glue guy, the X-factor to help this team win."
That his game wasn’t up to par wasn’t lost on Smith, but the stern reinforcement from his head coach helped the junior guard realize how important his play is for Ohio State, even if he sometimes gets lost behind stars like Craft and Deshaun Thomas.
But in No. 2-seed Ohio State’s 73-70 win over No. 6 Arizona on Thursday, Smith found where he could be the difference. And he took advantage of it.
While Arizona’s Grant Jerrett was at the free throw line for two shots with Ohio State clinging to a 60-52 lead with 7:25 remaining in the game, Lenzelle Smith Jr. walked over to Ohio State’s bench and pleaded for Matta to make a switch.
“I want 44,” Smith pleaded as Jerrett knocked down both free throws to bring the Wildcats back within six. “Put me on 44.”
Solomon Hill, or 44, was in the process of single-handily putting Arizona back in the game of which Ohio State worked so hard to take control. At one point, Hill scored nine straight points for Arizona, including an acrobatic one-handed slam after quickly driving past Thomas.
Smith had seen enough of Hill – who reminded him of former OSU guard William Buford – to know he could stop him, even though Hill had already scored 16 points for an Arizona team quickly gaining back momentum.
“I knew I could stop him from scoring, or at least make it as tough for him to score as possible,” Smith said. “I wasn’t going to let him drive the lane and dunk on us like he had been doing, I knew that for sure.”
Smith was right – Hill didn’t score for the remainder of the game.
“Last game, he wasn't being himself and coach yelled at him a little bit,” Craft said. “We wanted him to get into the groove a little bit. But he is a junior and he can handle himself. He did a great job of taking a step back and looking at the whole picture. We need him to do what he did (against Arizona).”
Sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross is responsible for the definitive moment of the game when he knocked down a three from far beyond NBA range to give the Buckeyes a three-point lead with two seconds left in the game.
But Smith had one more defensive play left – call it an encore – even if it went unnoticed in the thrill of OSU’s second consecutive last-second victory.
With time on Ohio State’s side, Arizona tried to find Hill by chucking the ball from under its own basket, but Smith knocked it away to seal the game for the Buckeyes.
“If he would have got the ball, he would have made it,” Smith said. “I know he would have made it. It was a big defensive play and it helped us get the win.”
In the week since his unpleasant exchange with Matta, Smith said he’s focused more on becoming a utility player for the Buckeyes, someone who can use his diverse skill-set to lift Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament.
Admittedly not happy with his recent statistical output as of late, Smith instead had the type of game one would expect from a “glue guy.” Smith scored six points – including the first four of the second half to erase Arizona’s halftime advantage – eight rebounds, two assists and a steal.
“I am just trying to do anything I can to help this team,” Smith said. “I think I can be a difference-maker, even if it means doing other things aside from scoring. I want to help us get back to the Final Four, and I think I can do that.”
Follow Ari Wasserman on Twitter and find us on Facebook.