Lenzelle Smith, Chane Behanan spark Final Four runs

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People are incorrect when they say that it was the play of Kemba Walker that carried UConn from the first day of the Big East tournament to 11 consecutive wins and, eventually, an NCAA Championship.

Kemba was sensational, don’t get me wrong. But he was sensational all season long. He went for 42 points in the second game of the regular season. He scored 90 points as the Huskies ran through the Maui Invitational in the third week of the regular season. There was the triple-double he had against New Hampshire, the game-winners he hit against Villanova and Texas, the 31 points and 10 assists he had against Georgetown.

You get the point.

As good as Kemba was, it was the emergence of Jeremy Lamb as a secondary scorer, Alex Oriakhi as a dominant rebounder and Shabazz Napier as a capable ball-handler that allowed Jim Calhoun to make a run to his third national title.

If we’re going to take anything out of UConn’s run, it’s that simply relying on a star is not enough to get a team to the Final Four. It’s the production of the supporting cast — both expected and unexpected — that is the difference between hanging a Final Four banner and heading home after the tournament’s first weekend.

You needn’t look any further than Saturday night’s Elite Eight action to see it.

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Louisville has one of the weirdest roster compositions you’re ever going to come across.

The Cardinal’s two most important players — Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva — happen to be the fifth- and sixth-leading scorers on the team, respectively. Their two leading scorers — Kyle Kuric and Russ Smith — have gotten more attention this season for the shots they’ve missed than the shots they’ve made.

Perhaps the least-talked about member of Louisville’s team is Chane Behanan, the undersized power forward whose physical, blue-collar presence in the paint is the perfect compliment to Dieng’s ability as a shot-blocker. Behanan, who averages 9.3 ppg and 7.4 rpg, has made a name for himself thanks to his ability to finish around the rim, often times with a powerful dunk in traffic. But he’s far from what you would consider a big-time scoring threat; he scored 17 or more points just three times this season heading into Saturday.

But against the Gators, Behanan did just that, finishing with 17 points and seven boards.

It was more than the number of points he scored, however. It was when he scored them. With the Gators up 11 and less than nine minutes left in the game, Behanan reeled off seven straight points in less than two minutes to get the Cards back within six. With three minutes left in the game — and with Siva on the bench with five fouls — Behanan hit a short jumper in the lane that tied the score for the first time since the 10 minute mark of the first half. With 1:12 left in the game, Behanan hit another short jumper that gave Louisville a 69-68 lead.

Florida wouldn’t score again, and Louisville would advance to the Final Four with a 72-68 win.

“Really wanted the ball, really played terrific down the stretch when we needed him,” Pitino said of Behanan. “Very surprising for a freshman.”

It was more than just Behanan’s offense that changed the course of this game, however. Florida torched Louisville’s zone in the first half, to the tune of 8-for-11 shooting from three. Rick Pitino switched to a man-to-man defense in the second half, but Florida began to expose the mismatches by using whoever  Gorgui Dieng was guarding in a pick-and-roll.

So down the stretch, Pitino had Behanan and Dieng essentially rotate the big man they were guarding, with Dieng protecting the rim and Behanan switching onto whoever set the screen. It was his ability to defend those ball-screens that led to Louisville’s 18-3 run over the final eight minutes of the game.

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Lenzelle Smith, Jr., has been one of the most enigmatic players on the Buckeye roster this season.

Smith had reached double figures just once this season when he exploded for 28 points in a 17-point win over Indiana in January. Three games later, Smith had 17 points in a 15-point win over Michigan. In between those two offensive explosions? Smith had a total of two points.

Seriously.

Two points. In two games.

So heading into this tournament, it really wasn’t a secret that Smith was able to score in bunches. What was unknown, however, was when he was actually going to show up. On the nights that Smith does show up, he makes Ohio State such a different basketball team. We all know about Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, but with the youth on the rest of the roster and the inconsistency of William Buford this season, finding another source of points has been vital.

On Saturday, Smith was that guy. He finished with 18 points in Ohio State’s 77-70 win over No. 1 seed Syracuse, scoring 16 of those 18 points in the second. Included in that stretch were arguably Ohio State’s two biggest shots of the night. With just under 12 minutes left in the second half, Syracuse had whittled a 10 point lead down to three when Smith buried a 3-pointer. Four minutes later, Syracuse had gotten the lead down to a single point when Smith hit his third triple of the second half.

The Orange would never have the ball with a chance to take the lead the rest of the game.

I guess at this point it would probably be prudent to remind you that Smith knocked heads with Brandon Triche hard enough to split over his right eyebrow, which required three stitches to stop the bleeding.

Smith had hit 25 threes in a row during Ohio State’s shootaround on Saturday, but it took a while to convince head coach Thad Matta that shooting touch had carried over to the game.

“[Smith] had lost his man on defense and given up a three and then came down and threw kind of a wild pass that almost got picked off,” Matta said, “and I was literally saying he doesn’t have it at the moment, let’s get him out and we’ll talk to him.”

“Then he bangs a three, and I’m like, he’s back.”

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Jared Sullinger and Deshaun Thomas combined for 33 points and 16 boards against Syracuse, while Aaron Craft provided his typical, petrifyingly tough on-ball defense.

Gorgui Dieng was only credited with one block while adding eight points and six boards, but he controlled the paint in the second half against Florida. Peyton Siva, before he fouled out, finished with nine points, eight assists and just a single turnover. Russ Smith chipped in with 19.

Chane Behanan and Lenzelle Smith weren’t alone on Saturday night. But they were the difference makers.

And they are just as much the reason the Buckeyes and the Cardinals are still playing as anyone.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Alabama coach Nate Oats gets new 6-year, $30 million deal

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nate Oats has agreed to a new six-year, $30 million contract amid the program’s best regular season in decades.

Oats will average $5 million plus incentives over the deal running through the 2028-29 season under a deal approved Friday by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees Compensation Committee.

It makes him the fourth-highest paid basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference and among the Top 10 nationally, athletic director Greg Byrne said.

Oats, who is in his fourth season, will make $4.5 million for the first year with $200,000 annual raises. The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (19-3, 9-0 SEC) has the team’s highest ranking this deep into a season since 1976-77.

“I am honored and humbled to receive a contract extension from the University of Alabama,” Oats said in a statement. “As I have said many times, my family and I love this community, the city of Tuscaloosa and the university.

“I am incredibly proud of what we have been able to build during our time at UA which is a direct reflection of the student-athletes, coaches and staff who have all played a big part in our success. I am excited for what’s happening in the future of our program and the direction we are heading.”

Alabama has gone 80-39 under Oats, winning the 2021 SEC regular season and tournament championships.

“Coach Oats has done an outstanding job leading our men’s basketball program, and we want him to continue doing so for many years to come,” Byrne said in a statement. “He and his staff have lifted the program back to national prominence and built a product that is exciting to be a part of for our team and for our fans.

“We were confident Nate was going to be an outstanding coach for us when we hired him, and he is not only that, but also a great leader of our young men.”

The new contract comes nearly three weeks after Alabama basketball player Darius Miles and another man were charged with capital murder following a fatal shooting near campus. Miles, a reserve forward, was removed from the team and suspended from the university following his arrest.

Duke women’s coach Kara Lawson says men’s ball used vs. FSU

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Duke coach Kara Lawson said her team played with a men’s basketball for the first half of a loss to Florida Stated.

The 16th-ranked Blue Devils lost to the Seminoles 70-57 in Tallahassee, Florida – the team’s second Atlantic Coast Conference loss of the season.

After her team beat Pittsburgh 53-44 , Lawson ended her news conference by speaking animatedly.

“This would never happen in a men’s game. This would never happen. It’s embarrassing for our sport,” she said.

The circumference of a women’s ball is about an inch smaller than a men’s ball and it is typically 2 ounces lighter. While it may not seem like a lot, that’s a big difference.

Lawson said throughout the first half, Duke players were “complaining about the ball.” The Blue Devils were 7 for 34 from the field in the opening 20 minutes of that game. They were 12 for 38 in the second half. Florida State made 10 of its 30 shots in the first two quarters and 14 of 31 in the second half.

“To have a game that, at the end of the season, could be the difference between a seed, between a title, my players don’t deserve that and neither do their players,” Lawson said. “It’s a complete failure. And you can figure out who the people I’m talking about that failed the sport and our players and both teams.”

Lawson said assistant coach Winston Gandy went to the scorer’s table at the half to check on the ball when he realized what the problem was. She said the game officials changed the ball to start the second half.

“We have concluded through our investigation that it was a men’s ball,” Lawson said. “The conference and Florida State is saying that it wasn’t.”

The ACC said it did a comprehensive review talking with game officials, administrators, the table crew and both schools.

“Following the thorough and objective review process, there was no evidence found to support the claim,” the conference said in a statement. “Per NCAA playing rules, there is no appeal or protest process.”

The ACC has instituted a procedural change that the game ball will be brought to the pregame meeting with the captains for approval.

“It’s very frustrating that (the game) … was not treated with the utmost respect that players on both teams deserve,” she said.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened in women’s basketball. In 2017, the College of Charleston played home games and practiced with men’s balls for most of its season until the error was was discovered.

“Let me be clear: Florida State beat us. They beat us playing with a men’s ball in the first half and a women’s ball in the second half. But I can’t say if we’d have played with a women’s ball in the first half and the second half that we would have won. But they can’t say that either,” Lawson said.

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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Kareem Elgazzar/USA TODAY NETWORK
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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.