Originally posted on Fox Sports Ohio  |  Last updated 3/25/12
BOSTON - He gets knocked out early, gets stitched up on the sideline, struggles to see out of his right eye for chunks of the game but returns to hit a bunch of big shots that push his team to the Final Four. Oh, by the way: He's the fifth starter on a team with four notable starters, had just 2 first-half points, averages just over 6 points a game for the whole season, wouldn't have played in a big NCAA Tournament game a year ago if four guards got into foul trouble and almost got yanked late in this game because his head coach didn't trust him. You following? You buying? Hollywood would sent the script to the trash can immediately, wanting something a little more believable. Lenzelle Smith Jr.'s story is real. Saturday night, he was a season saver for Ohio State. Smith got half of his 18 points on second-half 3-point shots and delivered the game's signature basket on a high-arching floater with 3:15 left that put Ohio State up by seven. The Buckeyes held on from there to beat top-seeded Syracuse, 77-70, and win the East Regional title. All-Everything big man Jared Sullinger led all scorers with 19 and certainly did more than his share in the game's biggest moments. But Smith scored 16 points in the second half, and besides his floater that forced Syracuse into scramble mode, he also hit a 3-pointer from the right wing with a little over seven minutes left that pushed the lead to four. Smith wore a regional champions hat when he went back to get the stitches re-done in the aftermath of a wild game and wilder celebration Saturday night. Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, William Buford and the regional championship trophy were under the bright lights of the official postgame press conference down the hall, and Smith was recalling what he could in a cramped but jubilant locker room. "It will hurt later," Smith said of the contusion over his right eye. "Right now, all that matters is we're going to the Final Four." Besides his 7-of-9 free throws and 3 rebounds, the record will also show he got three stitches early in the game hit with an inadvertent elbow while battling for position under the Syracuse basket and later got those replaced with four stitches. "As crazy as this sounds, Lenzelle had lost his man on defense and given up a 3-pointer and then came down and threw kind of a wild pass that almost got picked off," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "I was literally saying 'He doesn't have it at the moment, let's get him out and we'll talk to him.' Then he bangs a 3-pointer, and I'm like, 'He's back.' "So we let him ride it out. But the runner he had was (big). He played great basketball, knocked down his free throws when we needed them. You love to see it." Two early fouls sent Sullinger to the bench. Syracuse held Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, the NCAA Tournament's leading scorer, to 14 points and made him shoot 14 times to get there. Buford shot 3-of-12. Craft got just five points, only took three shots and fouled out while Syracuse was still very much alive in the final minute. It makes less than perfect sense that a flawed Ohio State team -- one of those most glaring flaws being a lack of depth -- survived while playing nine players by necessity, eight of whom scored. When Sullinger and his top backup, Evan Ravenel, both had to sit with two first-half fouls, little-used freshman Amir Williams contributed 3 points, 4 rebounds and a block and more than held his own in the paint. Strange game. Strange heroes. This deep into March, the script is written only as it goes. "I knew from the beginning of this tournament I had to come out do whatever it takes to get a win," Smith said. "I knew a lot of teams were going to focus their defense on Deshaun and Jared, and I knew thats when I have to bring my offensive game to the table. I brought it with me, packed it in my bag and it came through for me." In addition to his scoring heroics, Smith drew the primary defensive assignment on Syracuse's instant-offense sixth-man, Dion Waiters. Smith outperformed expectations on that end of the floor, too, as Waiters shot just 2-of-8 and finished with 9 points. "I told Coach from the gate to put me on (Waiters), and I knew my team was going to help me," Smith said. "Whenever he tried to drive and penetrate the lane, we had other guys trying to swipe the ball and force him to pick the ball up. Hes a great player but our defense was a problem for him." That Sullinger played just six first-half minutes but the game was still tied at halftime was a big problem for Syracuse, and the Buckeyes took the lead for good just two minutes into the second half. The Orange kept fighting but never regained the lead as the combination of Sullinger and Thomas was too good in the paint against a Fab Melo-less Syracuse zone and Smith's perimeter scoring essentially sealed it. Matta said he'd seen Smith hit 25 straight 3-pointers at the Buckeyes' morning shootaround and had a good feeling he'd deliver Saturday night. The injury complicated matters; at one point Matta said Smith told his teammates during a timeout that Syracuse was switching defenses. "They played the 2-3 zone the whole night," Matta said. "(Smith) was a little dizzy." He was steady enough to deliver his seventh double-figure scoring performance of the season despite the stitches and saying the arena lights, at certain angles, were bothering him. "I feel a lot of pain right now," Smith admitted after the game. And a lot of joy, too.
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