Smith shows he’s cut above

Buckeye is stitched up, then stands out

By Amalie Benjamin and Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / March 25, 2012
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At the end of the first half, Lenzelle Smith Jr., had 2 points and four stitches. At the end of the game, the sophomore guard had 18 points, had been a major force in stopping a late run by the Orange, and had coach Jim Boeheim lamenting Syracuse’s inability to stop him.

“Lenzelle, the bigger the game, the better he plays,’’ teammate Jared Sullinger said.

And that was huge against Syracuse Saturday night at TD Garden in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional final.

“I thought, for the game, we did a good job on everybody except for him,’’ Boeheim said.

Smith wasn’t available immediately after the game because the medical staff had to finish up some stitch work. But his impact was clearly felt.

“He stepped up and made a couple of big shots for us,’’ guard Aaron Craft said. “On the other end as well, he did a good job of keeping their great guards in front of him and trying to do his best. He was a little out of it the first half after getting hit and getting those stitches, but he did a great job at halftime of regrouping.

“He knocked down some big shots for us.’’

Like the 3-pointer with 7:13 to go that came right after Syracuse narrowed Ohio State’s once double-digit lead to 1 point.

Smith averaged 6.3 points per game this season, but had 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting in Ohio State’s win over Cincinnati Thursday. Against Syracuse, his shooting percentage wasn’t nearly as good (4 of 10), but his baskets were crucial, even after missing all four attempts in the first half.

At one point, Smith had lost his man on defense, given up a three, and thrown a wild pass in the first half. Coach Thad Matta was thinking to himself, Smith doesn’t have it. He was thinking he needed to take him out.

Then Smith hit a three.

“He played great basketball, knocked down his free throws when we needed them,’’ Matta said. “You love to see it.

“Lenzelle has learned the value of commitment, the value of hard work, and we couldn’t be happier with how he played.’’

Unscheduled T stop

Boeheim picked up his first technical foul of the season with 6:28 left in the first half and the game tied at 23. The technical was assessed after Syracuse’s Brandon Triche was whistled for an offensive foul. William Buford subsequently made one of two free throws.

Asked if he received an explanation for the technical, Boeheim said, “No.’’ After the game, crew chief John Higgins provided one.

Referee Tom O’Neill issued the technical, but according to Higgins, Boeheim “was assessed for being out of the coach’s box and gesturing about a call.’’

Higgins added that O’Neill said, “That was the third or fourth time, and I said, ‘enough.’ ’’

Special pep talk

Craft said he spoke with his older brother, Brandon, before Saturday’s game by telephone. Brandon, an infantryman with the US Army, has been stationed in Washington state, and made his first deployment to Afghanistan on Saturday.

“We had the going-away talk. He just told me to enjoy it,’’ said Craft, who finished with 5 points, 4 assists, and a steal before fouling out with 48.8 seconds left. “He wishes he could watch and be here, but he’s doing something more important.’’

Honors roll in

Deshaun Thomas, who scored 40 points in the two games in Boston, was one of three Buckeyes named to the All-East Regional team. Sullinger was the region’s most outstanding player, and Smith also earned the honor. Syracuse’s Scoop Jardine and Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin rounded out the five-man squad.

End of the line

The loss was Syracuse’s first in Boston in NCAA Tournament play. The Orange won two games in 2003 on their way to the national championship, then beat Wisconsin Thursday . . . Ohio State has scored at least 70 points in all four of its NCAA Tournament games . . . Combined with the 2006-07 season - which ended with a loss in the championship game - Matta is now the second Ohio State coach to take multiple Buckeye teams to the Final Four. Fred Taylor guided Ohio State four times (1961-63, 1968), and won the Buckeyes’ only national title in 1960.

Moving forward

Evan Ravenel transferred to Ohio State from Boston College, and after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules, has appeared in every game for the Buckeyes, averaging 3.5 points and 2.2 rebounds. Against Syracuse, he had 3 points in four minutes. The junior from Tampa, who scored 110 points in 39 games over two seasons (2008-10) with the Eagles, scored a season-high 11 against Texas Pan American, one of three games he’s started for the Buckeyes . . . After the victory over the Orange, Ohio State has a 71-49 record against current Big East schools. The Buckeyes have won five of six against Syracuse. There’s one more Big East team Ohio State might draw. Louisville beat Florida Saturday, 72-68, for a spot in the Final Four. But a Louisville-Ohio State game wouldn’t come until the national championship; the East Regional winner will face the Kansas-North Carolina winner in the semifinals.

Big Easy awaits

The victory sends the Buckeyes on to the Final Four in New Orleans where they will face the winner of today’s Midwest Regional Final between Kansas and North Carolina . . . Ohio State is making its first trip to the Final Four since 2007, when it lost in the national championship game to Florida . . . Ohio State is the last of four teams from the state of Ohio (Xavier, Cincinnati, Ohio University) that made the Sweet 16 still standing. It is also the last remaining Big Ten team, which had six squads make the tournament and four in the round of 16.

Mark Blaudschun of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Whitmer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer. Amalie Benjamin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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