Just 10 days ago, Ohio State senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. sat in the post game interview room at the Schottenstein Center visibly disgusted, disheartened and frustrated.
He and his team had just lost its fifth game in the month of January, a 71-70 setback to Penn State, and the OSU senior couldn’t hold back his emotions any longer.
“This game, this hurts the most out of every game since I’ve been at Ohio State,” Smith Jr. said Jan. 29. “These losses don’t hurt enough — this is embarrassing. Every other team in our conference is laughing at us right now.”
How things have changed since that dark moment for the Buckeyes.
Since the calendar flipped to February, OSU (19-5, 6-5) hasn’t lost, beating both then-No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 17 Iowa on the road and dispatching Purdue, 67-49, Saturday at home.
After taking care of business against the Boilermakers (14-10, 4-7), Smith Jr.’s attitude was quite the contrary to that night in late January.
“We’ve been winning. Simple as that. When you win, I feel good. When we lose, I feel bad,” Smith Jr. said with a smile.
Smith Jr. did his part against Purdue, pouring in 16 points, including shooting 4-7 from beyond the arc. He had been in a shooting slump as of late, shooting just 32.5 percent since OSU started the season 15-0 prior to Saturday’s win against the Boilermakers. That changed Saturday, as he kept firing with confidence, helping OSU build a double digit lead that eventually led to a win.
“It definitely opens things up for us,” OSU coach Thad Matta said after the win, referencing when Smith Jr. hits shots. “We want Lenzelle to take those shots when he’s open. He hit a big pull-up in the first half when they ran him off the line (and) he shot faked. But seeing him play like a senior, honestly I expect our seniors to play like that at Ohio State because they usually don’t make it that long.”
The good vibes have spread throughout the team in the last week and a half, and the team seems to be playing some of it’s best ball of the season heading into a showdown with No. 10 Michigan Tuesday.
“Any time you can get wins it adds confidence to the team, so that’s a great thing for us,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross — who scored a game-high 17 points against Purdue — said after the win Saturday. “I think we play a lot better when everybody’s got confidence. It’s good getting a win before we go play Michigan.
“It’s a great feeling. Winning cures all like I said before and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. I think everybody’s been feeling a lot better.”
It wasn’t just Smith Jr. who hit outside shots against the Boilermakers, as Ross, junior guard Shannon Scott and junior forward Sam Thompson also combined to hit four 3-pointers. That team effort helped secure the win, and Purdue coach Matt Painter said the fact that OSU’s won three in a row is because of just that: The Buckeyes are making shots.
“I always say that it’s a miracle that your offense is better when the ball goes in,” Painter said after the game. “They’re a good team, and you’re going to go through some tough times in this league. They’ll be there at the end. They’ll be good in the NCAA Tournament.”
Even with the three straight conference victories, OSU still sits fourth in the Big Ten standings, three and a half games behind conference leader Michigan State. They’ll have a chance to make up more ground against the Wolverines Tuesday, who — despite losing on the road against Iowa Saturday — are only a half game out of the conference lead.
“Pretty sure my team’s feeling good right now, but tomorrow’s a different day. Everybody’s probably going to forget about this one and we gotta get ready,” Smith Jr. said. “We got a great opponent coming in here now. They’re a great team and they’re playing some really good basketball as of late and we gotta be prepared to play even better basketball if we want to match that and get the win here.”
Matta agreed, adding that one bad stretch of basketball could cost any team a game in the Big Ten.
“You’d like to feel good, you’d like to feel great. But right now, geez. One bad segment of a game could cost you the game with what we have left on our schedule in terms of who we’re playing and when we’re playing, where we’re playing,” Matta said. “I hope our guys are feeling better about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how we’re doing it. That’s why I want them to be confident. Just in terms of our execution’s better, I think defensively we’ve been a lot more active and communication’s been a lot better.”