At any level of basketball, shooters go through slumps — it’s part of the game.
Ohio State senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. was no different in his team’s four games prior to Thursday’s 62-55 win against Illinois.
But one shot — that’s all it took for Smith Jr. to get back to where he needed to be and to help get his squad going the right way again.
“Lenzelle’s shot at the end of the half, he let that thing go and I’m like, ‘Come on, one time,’” said coach Thad Matta after the win, referring to a 3-pointer the senior buried that gave the Buckeyes a one-point lead with less than a minute left in the first half.
It is no surprise that the Buckeyes lost those four games when Smith Jr. shot a combined 13-39 from the field, including just 4-17 from beyond the arc.
But against Illinois, he rediscovered the shooting touch that helped his team start the season 15-0 — when he shot 39 percent from deep — pouring in 16 points and matching the number of 3-pointers he had made during those four losses. Smith Jr. said just seeing the ball go through the net was huge for his confidence, and a little bit of extra push from his teammates to keep shooting.
“It’s a mental thing,” Smith Jr. said after the win. “Sometimes I get in a state of mind of, ‘Ah, you missed a shot, maybe you should try to get in the paint now and get a layup.’ Or just tonight, I missed a few shots and (senior guard Aaron Craft and junior forward LaQuinton Ross) specifically said, ‘Shoot the ball!’ They were yelling at me, ‘Why are you not shooting the ball?’ And that kind of gave me that extra motivation of well, they want me to shoot then that’s my job on this team, and I’m (going to) shoot and luckily down the stretch, it came through for us.”
The play down the stretch against the Fighting Illini came with just 1:16 left on the clock when his team was clinging to a five-point lead, needing a score to put the game on ice.
With the shot clock winding down, the senior from Zion, Ill., found the ball in his hands on the right wing with no choice but to fire. The ball swished through the net, the crowd erupted, and Illinois’ ship sank.
The big play came on the heels of a three-point play by Ross and a turnover by Illinois, plays that Fighting Illini coach John Groce said were the difference in the outcome.
“Give them a lot of credit,” Groce said after the game. “I thought that Ross’ and-one was huge. I thought that Smith’s three was huge. I thought those were two big plays.”
The man who found Smith Jr. for the dagger 3-pointer was none other than Craft himself, on one of his team-leading five assists. Craft said he and Smith Jr. felt more responsibility than usual to help put an end to the losing skid.
“I think Lenzelle and I, both being seniors, we wanted to take it upon ourselves,” Craft said. “We didn’t do anything special, we didn’t say anything that was Earth-shattering or anything. We have a group of guys that’s been through the battles and knows what it takes … It’s about being tough down the stretch and finding whatever we have to do. And that’s what we did today and that’s what it’s about.”
A relieved Matta joked that Smith Jr.’s 4-8 shooting performance from three “probably takes him out to about six percent” shooting in Big Ten play, but couldn’t be more proud of his performance Thursday.
“Honestly, I’m happy for Lenzelle because he’s been very diligent last few days of in there working and trying to get everything right,” Matta said. “You see that, and that’s what excites you as a coach and you’re happy for him when it goes in.”
Though OSU (16-4, 3-4) might be back on track, it still sits in a tie for sixth place in the Big Ten with last-place Penn State (10-10, 1-6) set to visit the Schottenstein Center Wednesday at 7 p.m.
But putting a halt to the losing streak — the program’s longest since February 2008 — puts the Buckeyes near where they need to be come season’s end.
“It’s very important, obviously,” Smith Jr. said on ending the losing skid. “I don’t think anybody here or in this team signed up to lose games, so I mean obviously guys are feeling a little bit better now. Obviously we know that we haven’t done what we wanted to do, or we got done what we think we should get done but it’s definitely a step closer and it feels good.”