COLUMBUS — No so long ago, Ohio State was a dysfunctional team headed nowhere.
Not there’s a sense by the Buckeyes that they might have figured out some of their problems.
Lenzelle Smith Jr., starting his 100th game, hit 4 of 7 3-pointers and scored 16 points to lead the way in a 67-49 win over Purdue on Saturday night, the Buckeyes’ third win in a row after losing five of six.
“When we were still in January we tried to put the losses behind us,” said LaQuinton Ross, who led the Buckeyes (19-5, 6-5 Big Ten) with 17 points. “It’s a great feeling. Winning cures all. That’s what we’ve been doing lately, so everybody’s been feeling a lot better.”
Maybe so, but coach Thad Matta knows how tenuous success is in a difficult league over a long season.
“You like to feel great. But right now, jeez, one bad segment of a game could cost you the game with what we have left on our schedule in terms of who, where and when we’re playing,” Matta said. “Our execution is better, defensively we’ve been a lot more active and communication has been a lot better for us.”
The Buckeyes won their first 15 games to get to No. 3 in the nation. Then lost four in a row and split the next two. Then they pulled off two huge road wins, winning at No. 14 Wisconsin 59-58 on Feb. 1 and at No. 17 Iowa 76-69 on Tuesday.
After a Jan. 29 home loss to Penn State — winless in the conference to that point — Smith in particular sniped about how there was no camaraderie and little leadership on the team. That was the low point.
“Ever since I had that interview and I said we were missing camaraderie and leadership, I think we found a lot of that stuff we were missing,” said Smith, who has been slumping offensively in recent games. “It’s great. Because this is the time you want to be playing your best basketball. As long as we can keep this train rolling without any stops or bumps in the road, I think we’re going to be very happy and a very successful basketball team.”
The Buckeyes broke open the game late — a trend in these last three victories. They finished the game on a 19-4 run to turn a tight 48-45 lead into an easy win.
“They’re a good team,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “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.”
Reserves Kendall Stephens and Rapheal Davis had 12 and 11 points with A.J. Hammons adding 11 for the Boilermakers (14-10, 4-7), who have lost five of six overall and their last four on the road.
The Boilermakers responded with a 9-2 run which featured Terone Johnson’s first points of the game — he was 0 for 5 from the field before hitting a 3 — to cut the lead to 48-45 with 9:22 left.
But Smith came right back with a 3, though, to stem the comeback. Two possessions later, Amir Williams was fouled by Hammons and hit two free throws. Smith then stole the ball and hit a 3 to push the lead to 56-45 with 5:43 left.
The lead was never in doubt the rest of the way.
Johnson, leading the Boilermakers with 12.6 points a game coming in, misfired on all four of his shots from the field in the first 20 minutes and was scoreless. He finished with three points.
After a bleak month of January, there is some daylight for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have seven Big Ten games left: four at home (No. 10 Michigan on Tuesday, Northwestern, Minnesota, No. 9 Michigan State) and three on road (at Illinois, Penn State and Indiana).
A partisan crowd of 18,809 started singing, “We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan” in the final minutes.
“I anticipate this carrying over to the next game because we’re playing the Team Up North and everybody’s going to be playing their best basketball,” Smith said. “We just have to.”