As senior guard Aaron Craft’s shot helplessly rimmed out in the Ohio State men’s basketball team’s NCAA Tournament matchup against Dayton, there was another senior on the floor who watched as his career ended.
For a moment, senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. wasn’t sure what the ball’s final fate was going to be.
“You don’t have time to think about it,” Smith Jr. said after the game about the final shot by Craft. “You’ve got to get back to your spot to be wide open or if the ball may come to you or get into a position to tip the ball back in. But the ball didn’t just come off, it dangled on the rim for a second or so.”
Craft might have been the headliner, but Smith Jr. had been there for every win and every loss of the last four seasons alongside Craft.
Smith Jr. said losing to an in-state rival by a single point, 60-59, was a tough way to end his career.
“This is definitely hard, I just, for the type of career me and Aaron had, it hurts that much more to end like this,” Smith Jr. said. “It caps it off — this is not a showing of what we have done for four years and it sucks. It definitely doesn’t feel good, I can’t really describe it right now.”
Joining the program in 2010, Smith Jr. was part of a landmark class for coach Thad Matta, a group that included Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas — who both have since left to join the professional ranks — as well as J.D. Weatherspoon and Jordan Sibert, who transferred to Toledo and Dayton, respectively.
Although Smith Jr. was on the roster, it wasn’t until his sophomore year when he really broke into the Buckeye rotation. In 2011-12, Smith Jr. finished fifth on the team in minutes and points per game, helping OSU make a Final Four run that was eventually ended by Kansas.
After a successful junior year, where Smith Jr. was third on the team with 9.2 points per game, the senior, alongside Craft, became the fastest player in OSU history to lead his team to 100 wins.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder,” Matta said after the senior guards clinched their 100th win against North Florida Nov. 29. “Today is their 100th win at Ohio State. They’re the second-fastest in college basketball to get there … If you stop and think about how quick they got there, in 119 games, 100 wins, it’s amazing and I’ve never been prouder of two guys.”
After the loss against Dayton, junior forward Sam Thompson said it was hard to have to bid farewell to the seniors after a close loss.
“It’s a bitter feeling. You don’t want to send your seniors out on a note like this,” Thompson said. “But I love them to death, I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors and they’ll go down as having two of the best careers that Ohio State has ever seen.”
Smith Jr. was the Buckeyes’ second leading scorer this season, averaging 11.0 points per game, but made up a trio of guards that gave OSU its status as one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation.
The team finished 12th in the nation by only allowing an average of 59.8 points per game on defense. Although Smith Jr. was not one of the two Buckeyes named to the All-Big Ten defensive team (Craft and junior guard Shannon Scott were), he was vital to the team’s defensive identity.
“That’s the name of the game,” Smith Jr. said after Dayton loss. “You need to play good defense, I don’t see teams that don’t play good defense, and can score the ball, win games. That’s been us, that’s been our team, that’s what we built our team on. So much of our team is our defense … If we’re not as sound as we’ve been to win games on defense, we’re going to lose.”
But despite the way it ended, Smith Jr. said he wouldn’t trade his time at OSU for anything.
“Being allowed to play for Buckeye Nation and the real fans that support us and love us, I love those guys and had a blast, a great opportunity, best time of my life playing for those guys … Definitely didn’t want to end it this way, I know our true fans are as hurt as us right now, I wish things would have went differently.”