Cody Cousino / Photo editor
BOSTON – The famous Syracuse 2-3 zone is a tough enough challenge when fully healthy.
But imagine facing it with one eye.
That’s basically what Lenzelle Smith Jr. did Saturday.
The Ohio State sophomore guard came back from having his eye patched together with four stitches to score 18 points as the Buckeyes beat Syracuse, 77-70, Saturday and earned a trip to the Final Four.
With 17:28 remaining in the first half, Smith Jr. was cut above his right eye. Even though he said he immediately wanted go back in the game, the blood flowing from what OSU team doctor Grant Jones called a “laceration” forced him to go back to the locker room and get stitches.
But for Smith Jr., the stitches weren’t the difficult part. When he reentered the contest with 13:06 remaining in the half, he could barely see.
“I couldn’t see,” he said. “The court lights, something was messing with my contacts or something. It was causing a lot of pain when I tried to force it.”
When Smith Jr. looked to his right, he said he felt a sharp pain. It was so bad that he had to adjust his play on both ends of the floor.
“I’m normally on the right side (on offense),” Smith Jr. said. “I had to stay on the left side because looking right was a blur for me. We switched it up and it was able to work.”
Defense wasn’t any better.
He told his teammates he was going to force the guy he was guarding to go left because “if they went right I was going to lose them.”
It was a struggle at first.
To start the second half, he lost his man on defense and gave up a 3-pointer. Then on offense he threw a pass that Syracuse almost intercepted.
“I was literally saying he doesn’t have it at the moment, let’s get him out,” OSU coach Thad Matta said.
But Matta stuck with Smith Jr. and eventually it paid off.
OSU’s lead swelled to as many as 10 points in the second half, but whenever it looked like Syracuse was threatening to take control of the game, it was Smith Jr. who made a big shot for his team.
When the lead was cut to three points with less than 12 minutes remaining, Smith Jr. made a 3-pointer to extend the lead to six.
When the lead was down to one with less than eight minutes to go, he hit another three.
He swished a high-arching floater in traffic and made all four of his free throws down the stretch to help clinch OSU’s first trip to the Final Four since 2007.
In all, Smith Jr. made three 3-pointers and scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half.
And he did it with one eye.
“The strong survive,” Smith Jr. said. “I told our team from the (get-go), we had to be the toughest team. We were the youngest so we had to definitely be the toughest. We had to come out here and fight for each other.”
Smith Jr.’s performance didn’t just help his team win the game, though. It also helped him win a contest with his teammate and fellow sophomore guard Aaron Craft.
The two players have had a contest to determine who was the toughest on the team. Apparently Craft was ahead before the Syracuse game because of a black eye he suffered a couple weeks ago.
The stitches were a game changer.
“I kind of went to him and was like, ‘Hey look at this,'” Smith Jr. said. “I’m winning right now. I doubt he can top this because the pain it took to do this, I doubt he wants to do this.”
Craft admitted defeat - gladly.
“He definitely beat me on the toughness meter for that one, but I’ll take it,” Craft said. “He did a great job. I’m really proud of him sticking in there and knocking down good shots.”
Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas said he was impressed with how Smith Jr. handled the adversity, even comparing his performance with the famous Michael Jordan flu game.
“Jordan had the flu, some people play with a bad wrist, and this is what big players do,” Thomas said.
It was the second game in a row Smith Jr. had a big scoring night for the Buckeyes.
He had 15 points in OSU’s win against Cincinnati in the Sweet 16. He averages just 6.1 points per game.
Smith Jr. said he’ll probably have to continue his high-scoring ways in New Orleans where the Buckeyes will play Kansas Saturday. Tip is set for about 9 p.m.
He said he was still in a lot of pain after the game, but has no doubts he’ll play.
Matta doesn’t either, and said he expects his strong play to continue.
“Lenzelle has learned the value of commitment, the value of hard work,” Matta said. “I couldn’t be happier with how he played.”