Lenzelle Smith Jr. helps Ohio State top Syracuse, reach Final Four
BY HERB GOULD email@example.com March 24, 2012 11:40PM
Syracuse forward Kris Joseph, left, and center Baye Keita (12) can't stop Ohio State center Amir Williams (23) as he dunks during the first half of the East Regional final game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Boston. Ohio State won 77-70. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Updated: April 26, 2012 8:26AM
BOSTON — Even in these troubled times for basketball in Illinois, we expected Kentucky’s Anthony Davis to give the Final Four a Chicago presence.
But Lenzelle Smith Jr.? Who knew?
The unheralded 6-4 sophomore guard from Zion came up with a big-time second half, scoring 16 of his 18 points after needing four stitches to repair a cut over his right eye in the first half to key Ohio State’s 77-70 Elite Eight upset of Syracuse on Saturday.
The Orange wasn’t just the top seed in the East. Playing in front of a partisan crowd of 19,026, this figured to be a TD Garden party for the Big East regular-season champion.
Even without its ineligible shot-blocker, Fab Melo, Syracuse (34-3), which survived Wisconsin on Thursday with stellar perimeter play and tough zone defense, seemingly had the poise and patience to make its first Final Four trip since 2003, when it won its lone national championship.
Instead, Syracuse legend Jim Boeheim fell to 1-7 against Big Ten teams in the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State (31-7) will be going to its first Final Four since 2007, when it lost to Florida in the title game.
‘‘Honestly, I appreciate everybody that doubted this team,’’ said Jared Sullinger, who led the Buckeyes with 19 points. ‘‘[Everybody who] said we were underdogs, said we weren’t good enough. Said we weren’t mentally strong enough, physically strong enough. Too young. Too immature. We heard it all. When we were going through that slump in February, everybody was saying this team is going downhill.
‘‘I want to thank you all because we pushed through all the adversity. I’m so proud of these guys. We came from nothing, according to you all, to something now.’’
A 29-29 first half decided nothing, except to leave both teams fretting about fouls and unpredictable officiating. Sullinger played only six minutes, picking up his second foul on a ticky-tack call. And Boeheim drew a technical — his first in three years, he said — for protesting a shaky charging call on Brandon Triche.
That set the stage for a rock-solid second half by the Buckeyes, who had not looked like they had that in them in February home losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin that fueled the doubts.
‘‘Everybody kind of pulled together,’’ coach Thad Matta said.
‘‘It was something we’ve been preaching. We told them, to win this game, somebody was going to have to step up and make plays.’’
The key somebody was Smith, who joined Sullinger on the All-East Regional team. He’d had a big game before, going off for 28 against Indiana on Jan. 15. Other than that, though, he had not scored more than 12 in a game this season.
Smith didn’t make it to the interview room because the cut required attention. But the Buckeyes knew what he had done.
‘‘He did a lot for us, offensively and defensively,’’ guard Aaron Craft said. ‘‘He made a couple of big shots for us. And on the other end, he did a good job of keeping their great guards in front of him.’’
Ohio State wound up 31-for-42 from the free-throw line, while Syracuse was 20-for-25 in a game in which the officiating was unsatisfying. The Orange was whistled for 28 fouls, Ohio State 20.
‘‘Our defense wasn’t the problem,’’ Boeheim said. ‘‘Our offense was the problem. And I guess we fouled them too many times.’’
It left a bad taste for Syracuse’s accomplished seniors.
‘‘Like Coach said, tonight wasn’t our night on the offensive end,’’ Scoop Jardine said. ‘‘The loss hurts, but me not playing with these guys for the rest of my life is going to hurt even more.’’
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes will see if they can pull off another surprise or two.
‘‘Hopefully, this is not our last game,’’ Sullinger said. ‘‘We’re not going down to New Orleans for a vacation. It’s a business trip.’’