Sanford's heroics cause OSU heartbreak

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Beneath the pile of humanity, under the sea of astonished smiles and celebratory hugs, somewhere flat on his back was Vee Sanford, victim of the scrum and hero of the game.

It is March, and this is what March is: a 15-man pileup in the middle of a court, and a kid at the bottom who left a more certain postseason future at one school on the promise of a coach at another; who started 31 games as a junior and then nodded and said nothing when pushed to the bench as a senior.

And this is also March -- a good hour later, interviews done, locker room closed, teammates in their warm-up gear heading to the bus, and Aaron Craft still in his uniform, socks off, tape still wrapped around his ankles, walking into the hallway to hug his former teammate Jordan Sibert, who now plays for the team that just ended his college career.

Thousands of words have been penned about the ecstasy and agony of this tournament, and thousands more will be written. March is the surest thing in sports, a guaranteed thrill-making, gut-wrenching run to a title.

This one, though, might have outdone itself, delivering a well-played and emotionally frayed game from the opening tip.

No. 11 seed Dayton won 60-59 against No. 6 seed Ohio State, with Sanford scoring the game winner on a drive down the right side of the lane and only after Craft's barreling layup rolled around the rim and off as the buzzer sounded.

"It's March," Dayton's Devin Oliver said. "It's just crazy."

The narrative in lots of places will be about the little brother Flyers taking it to their shadow-making Buckeyes big brothers. But in the end this game is always about much smaller pictures than the big ones.

It's about the players.

For four years, Craft has been the personification of what people want this college game to be about (excluding, that is, the folks who find fault with a no-curse, no-drink, straight-A, heart-on-his-sleeve basketball player).

Nearly impeccable in every other part of his life, Craft certainly hasn't been without flaw on the basketball court, and this game was hardly a maestro effort. He had five turnovers and only four assists, an upside-down box score for him.

And when the game was on the line, the ball was where it belonged -- in his hands.

With 15.5 seconds left, Craft drove left and somehow managed to scoop in an up-and-under layup with his left hand to put the Buckeyes up one, 59-58.

Twelve seconds later, the ball was in his hands again. Barreling down the court, he bull-rushed his way through two defenders, tossing up a decent Hail Mary of a layup that twisted around the rim before dropping off.

"I just tried to get up the floor as quickly as possible," Craft said. "There's only four seconds left. That's kind of how our season has gone. I thought I got it up there high enough and I obviously didn't, so ..."

No, this time Craft was outdone by someone who lacks his fame but really isn't so different.

Sanford, someone Oliver described as a "go-about-your-business kind of guy," started his career at Georgetown but decided to transfer when he was unable to squeeze in much playing time.

He took a chance on Dayton and coach Archie Miller, leaving the Hoyas' pedigree for a new coach trying to build his brand.

"I just trusted Coach Miller's plan," Sanford said.

But then Miller's plan changed. Sanford started every game for the Flyers last season, averaging 12.3 points per game. But, with a host of freshmen coming in, Miller thought Sanford would be of more help coming off the bench.

The two discussed the idea at the beginning of the season.

"He never said a word about it," Miller said. "Never complained once. Still hasn't. For him to have that chance, it's poetic justice. So much of what we do and have been able to do as a team this year is because of him and his presence. For him to have that shot, a shot that's going to be played over and over again, it's perfect."

Three players on the Dayton team average more points than Sanford -- Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre and Oliver -- but when Miller signaled a timeout to set up the game winner, he put the ball in Sanford's hands.

No one was surprised.

"He's our best downhill option," Oliver said. "As soon as he got that first step, I knew he'd make a play at the rim."

Miller told Sanford to go right, which wasn't exactly a surprise, either. Craft, defending on the play, suspected as much.

Still, Sanford was able to get that first step and blow by, of all people, Craft.

"It's amazing the way that, you know, defense has kind of been my thing and how it's going to end with a kid getting the game winner on me," Craft said.

The winning shot was a floater kissed off the glass, a shot Sanford said he perfected as a fourth-grader back when his father added it to his repertoire because his boy was always so much smaller than everyone else.

As these things go, Sanford described it over and over after the game, as wave upon wave of reporters found him in the hallway outside the locker room.

With little emotion and not a trace of arrogance, he explained it again and again, until finally everyone had had their fill and Sanford walked off.

His teammates had all but cleared out of the locker room by then.

He was the last to leave.

Just like Craft.

The same and yet so different, as March tends to be.