BUFFALO, N.Y. – One rotation to the left and Ohio State’s season wouldn’t be over. Neither would Aaron Craft’s career. But the ball caromed off the rim, ending the Buckeyes’ topsy-turvy season and drawing the curtain on a career that will long be remembered.
Craft missed a potential game-winning jumper from inside the free throw line as time expired, as Ohio State fell to Dayton 60-59 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday. Dayton’s Vee Sanford made a driving layup with 3.8 seconds left to lift No. 11 seed Flyers over sixth-seeded Ohio State.
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“Right now, I can’t move past this game,” Craft said, dejectedly. “I just wanted to do everything I could to help our team win. Down the stretch, I couldn’t do that today. I can take blame for that.”
The moniker March Madness wasn’t created because the NCAA Tournament is month-long series of contests developed on boredom. True to form, the first game of the 64-team bracket provided a heart-stopping finish.
Sam Thompson scored a game-high 18 points, Craft had 16 and LaQuinton Ross 10.
The Ohio High School state championships are being played in Columbus this weekend. But Thursday’s Ohio State-Dayton clash represented the most hyped all-Ohio matchup of the week. And it lived up to four days of buildup.
“I want our guys to go enjoy it,” Dayton head coach Archie Miller said. “This is the greatest thing in the world when you win the 12 noon game, because you can sit and watch the replay a lot.”
Fans of both universities filed into the First Niagara Center trading friendly barbs and energizing the sold-out arena. The vigor didn’t subside when the opening tip went up. The Buckeyes (25-10) and Flyers (24-10) went back and forth for 40 minutes, trading baskets and giving ammunition to the many Ohioans who wished an annual matchup existed.
There were eight ties and 15 lead changes, none bigger than Sanford’s basket in the final four seconds. The game played out in familiar fashion for Ohio State. Living on the edge for a bulk of the season, it fell behind in both halves only to rally.
“You’re never comfortable,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “You look at the last five games we’ve played, literally, I’ve listened for the horn to go off to see if we won or lost. That’s something we had talked about coming in. The last five games come down to the last shot.”
Down eight midway through the second half, the Buckeyes displayed their usual defensive tenacity, turning Dayton over four times in eight possessions and sparking a 13-2 run. Thompson scored eight of 13 points during Ohio State’s run.
The Buckeyes secured their first lead since the first half at 45-43 with 10:23 left. It set for the stage for a dramatic final 10 minutes. There were four lead changes in the final minute alone.
Thompson broke a 55-all tie with 57 seconds left before Shannon Scott fouled Dyshawn Pierre on a corner 3. He converted all three free throws putting Dayton in front 58-57 with 26.3 seconds remaining. But Ohio State regained the lead when Craft, who scored seven of the Buckeyes’ last nine points, made a hard-charging reverse layup with 15.5 seconds left.
“They were playing my right hand all game, so I went back to my life and had an opening,” Craft said. “I just tried to get it up on the glass and it went in.”
After a timeout, the Flyers put the ball in the hands of Sanford, a fifth-year senior reserve who transferred from Georgetown. He drove to the basket on Craft, floating a perfect shot over Craft’s outstretched arms.
A mad dash ensued with Craft sprinting down court and getting off a clean look at a game-winning basket. It was not to be.
“It never ends the way you want it to, except for one team,” Matta said.
Dayton’s players spilled onto the floor in a euphoric celebration.
“I was just closing my eyes and thanking God,” said Sanford, who scored 10 points. “I’m just glad Aaron Craft didn’t make that shot, because that would have hurt.”
Growing up in Lexington, Ky., Sanford and his father, a high school coach in the basketball-mad state, would spend countless hours in a local park practicing game-winning shots that looked awfully similar to his valiant play against Ohio State.
He was comfortable in the moment, all the way down to staring down arguably the nation’s top defender in Craft. Playing that role in Lexington was his dad.
“He would push me and shove me as much as he could,” Sanford said.
Lunch break extended into the 2 o’clock hour throughout the state of Ohio. In Columbus, the rest of the workday was spent pondering what might have been.
- Ohio State is now 4-3 all-time vs. Dayton and 48-25 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
- OSU has lost its last six NCAA Tournament games by a combined 14 points (2, 3, 2, 2, 4 and 1).
- Aaron Craft concluded his career as Ohio State and the Big Ten's career leader in steals with 337, ranking 12th in NCAA history.
This is the first opening round loss for the Buckeyes since it lost to Siena in overtime in 2009.
Dayton started slow, falling behind 5-0 and failing to score until nearly three minutes went off the clock. But the Flyers weren’t deterred, rattling off a 13-4 run to take the early advantage. Ohio State missed seven of its final eight shots in the first half. The Buckeyes’ disruptive defense didn’t appear until the second half. Dayton had just five turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
The first few minutes of the second half were similar for Ohio State, as the Flyers quickly stretched a three-point lead to eight. That prompted a timeout from Matta and a purple-faced tirade.
“We didn’t come to play today,” senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. “Our coach tried to fire us up and give us energy in the NCAA Tournament, and he couldn’t do it. For us, we shouldn’t need a coach to fire us up in the tournament when this could possibly be your last game.
“We didn’t get the job done as a team.”