BUFFALO — Aaron Craft stared aimlessly at the rafters.
Ohio State's Aaron Craft (4) drives past Dayton's Khari Price (0) and Devin Oliver (5) during the second half of a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., Thursday, March 20, 2014. Dayton won the game 60-59. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)
The Ohio State basketball team’s 60-59 loss to Dayton in Thursday’s NCAA tournament opener was only seconds old, and already the senior guard from Findlay knew his mind would take weeks to settle. He remained on his back, oblivious to the pile of players on the other end of the court and the noise that rattled the First Niagara Center.
Craft raced through it all. He wished he had defended Vee Sanford’s game-winning shot with 3.8 seconds left differently, forcing the reserve guard to his left instead of his right. He wished he had shot his buzzer-beating runner one inch longer. He wished he had an answer for the team’s wild swings — saying "fans have deserved an answer to that all year." He wished his career was not over.
"This is going to hurt," he said, his voice cracking.
Lunch breaks across Ohio reached record lengths as Ohio State’s second meeting with Dayton in 26 years surpassed its billing.
Then, with one white-knuckle sequence, the tournament’s "One Shining Moment" montage had its first entry and the sixth-seeded Buckeyes’ grip on Ohio was suspended. The Buckeyes (25-10) lost to an in-state opponent for the first time since their 1998 trip to the University of Toledo — a span of 14 games.
The No. 11-seed Flyers (24-10) had the last answer in a game that featured 15 lead changes, even as Ohio State had them in just the position it wanted. After Craft hit a go-ahead reverse layup with 16.5 seconds left, Sanford, a fifth-year senior transfer from Georgetown, had the ball on the right wing one-on-one against the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year.
"Honestly, me telling Aaron how to play defense would be like me telling somebody how to build a rocket ship," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. "I'll live and die with that kid any day of the year of what he's going to do defensively."
Yet Craft admittedly erred in allowing his man go to his strong hand and, with no help at the basket, Sanford sank a contested four-foot runner.
Craft then weaved nearly 94 feet up the floor to get a close look just before the buzzer blared. But one of the most accomplished careers in Ohio State history would not get one more storybook moment. The ball hit off the backboard and bounced off the rim.
"I thought it was going in," said Dayton coach Archie Miller, a former OSU assistant under Matta. "I thought it was going in. I’ve watched those guys win that game a thousand times. [Craft] is a bulldozer with the ball. He got it down there in about three dribbles, and he got a good look. We got lucky."
Craft collapsed to the floor. The Liberty-Benton graduate had little cause for regret, scoring 16 points — including a traditional three-point play that tied the game at 55 — and swiping four steals. And yet no one took the loss harder than the player who unfailingly played the hardest. Craft remained on the court for more than 10 seconds, shook hands with the Dayton players, and slung his head as he disappeared into the tunnel.
Asked about his legacy, he replied, "Sorry, I have zero thoughts on that right now. I'm upset at the way that we played this game and the way that we didn't take the opportunity and make the most of it."
"I’m not upset that I’m done," Craft said. "I'm upset with the way we lost the game. I’m angry at myself for letting [Sanford] get a shot over me to his right hand, I'm upset at myself for not making one more play down the stretch. That's what hurts right now."
Dayton, meanwhile, embraced its perch atop the state this season. The Flyers won their first tournament game since 2009 — the same season OSU last failed to make it to the Sweet 16.
"I don't think we came here like it was a circus act," Miller said. "I don't think we came here trying to hopefully hang in there and go home, and, boy, it was a great run. ... We didn't get real complicated. It wasn't about Ohio State or where they're from or blah, blah, blah. It wasn't. It was about us."
Sam Thompson had a game-high 18 points for OSU. Dyshawn Pierre led the Flyers with 12 points while OSU transfer Jordan Sibert added nine.