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Smith leads by example for retooled Bandits’ defense

Last weekend was a long one for Billy Dee Smith.

The veteran Buffalo Bandits defenseman played two games in two nights against the Toronto Rock, the team with the best record in the National Lacrosse League. He showed up and battled the opposition for 60 minutes each time, as usual. Coming so close to a sweep of the Rock – less than a minute – took a bit of a toll.

“I think, at the end of the game, you feel drained after an overtime loss,” Smith said. “You battle back, but fall a play short. It takes the wind out of your sails.

“But then, you go back to work.”

Smith, who has been a Bandit since 2003, will do exactly that on Saturday night when Buffalo goes up against the Minnesota Swarm at the First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM).

Night after night, year after year, Smith puts in an honest effort. If there’s contact in the Bandits’ end of the floor, Smith usually is in the middle of it. The veteran sometimes is guilty of being a little too competitive, going over the edge and taking penalties. But it’s difficult to criticize his commitment, especially at a position that isn’t long on glory.

Buffalo’s Anthony Cosmo has been watching the defender for years – first as an opponent and then as a teammate. Cosmo prefers to have Smith on his side.

“He’s a leader on our team,” Cosmo said. “Billy is a well-spoken man. He treats every game as a battle. Even the older guys notice how he plays with commitment, emotion and care. I look forward to seeing it every game.”

That sort of effort adds up. The games with Toronto were filled with emotion, as the teams once again played like they were heated rivals – in other words, the veteran’s type of game.

“For sure – after” last Friday’s game, “it was easy to notice how intense it was,” Smith said. “Saturday’s shootaround got the legs loose. Once the game starts, you don’t have time to think about being tired. It’s a pride thing. You want to make sure your guy doesn’t score so you can help the team. If you’re hurting, you just march through it.”

Smith and the Bandits defense have a slightly different look from the 2014 squad, as Rory Smith was traded to Vancouver. Buffalo used to present a very physical defense with the two Smiths, Derek Suddons and Steve Priolo. The Bandits still aren’t shy about throwing their weight around, but quickness appears to have grown in importance this year.

“I would say it’s more of a case of the league changing the game,” Billy Dee Smith said. “They don’t give you the opportunity to get the hate on as much. The way the league is going now, you’ll get a penalty for pushing a guy. You have to play a smarter role.

“Anytime we’re out of the box, it’s a good thing. We’re trying to be faster. Last year we fell short in transition. This year, we’re definitely a lot faster. We had some guys who didn’t take the ball when they might have had the chance. This time we’re more of a team defense.”

One of the major factors for that has been the play of Alex Kedoh Hill, who is back on the roster after taking 2014 off from lacrosse. When Hill is on defense, he’s always a threat to pick up a loose ball and take off in the other direction.

“He’s so natural,” Smith said about Hill. “In 2013, we won a Mann Cup” in Canada’s summer league “with him. He was a game-changer in Victoria. He played so well. So I’m not too surprised by what he’s done here. I’ve seen him do it before.”

This week, the Bandits play a Minnesota team with a 3-7 record – the worst in the NLL East. The Swarm lost a 15-12 decision in Buffalo on Jan. 30.

“They’re young, and they’re fast,” Smith said. “They work very hard. From the time we played them almost two months ago, they’re almost a completely different team. That’s normal – we can’t take any team lightly. Every team is fired up to play us.”

The Bandits have six games left on the schedule, and five of them are against the teams trailing them in the division – Minnesota and New England (3-5).

“We need to string a couple of wins together,” Smith said.