Flyers float their way past in-state rival Buckeyes in NCAA tournament
Sanford stands 6-foot-4 now and is an aggressive, nearly-double-digit scorer off Dayton's bench, but as a high school underclassman in Lexington, Ky., he was just 5-7 and trying to add any move he could muster to his burgeoning offensive repertoire. In his way was his 6-6 father, Vince, a former South Florida forward and assistant coach at Lexington Catholic High, who forced his son to go up and over his smothering defense at the local park if his shot was going to find the basket. "The floater's kind of been my shot," said Sanford with an incongruous calm after playing the hero in his 11th-seeded Flyers' 60-59 upset of sixth seed Ohio State in the South region.
The proof will now live on in Dayton lore and is also sure to live on in this year's One Shining Moment montage. Coming out of a timeout with 10.8 seconds to play and his team trailing by one, Sanford went one-on-one with Craft -- the four-year embodiment of the Buckeyes' dogged defense, and the Big Ten's two-time defensive player of the year -- from beyond the arc to the right block, elevating and floating a high-banking layup over him to put the Flyers ahead. Craft responded with a full-court drive that resulted in a rattled-out runner amid traffic on the other end as the buzzer sounded. "I thought it was going in," said Dayton coach Archie Miller of Craft's attempt, "It just ended up rimming out, and we got lucky."
This is Sanford's second season playing for Dayton after his 2011 transfer from Georgetown, where he averaged fewer than four minutes per game in his first two seasons. But much like when he shot up roughly half a foot upon changing schools in the middle of his high school career, Sanford has grown greatly as a Flyer. He averaged 12.3 points as a starter last season, then 9.9 this season while earning the acclaim of teammates for his acclimation to a reserve role upon Jordan Sibert's insertion into the starting lineup. At the same time he has fostered a reputation among teammates as an unbothered crunch-time scorer in situational practice drills. "If Vee is on your team and you need a bucket," said forward Devon Scott, "that's who you go to."
This was supposed to be a game about the Flyers' other prominent transfer, Sibert, who spent two seasons at Ohio State before leaving in 2012 to pursue more playing time elsewhere. Much was also made during the lead-up of the two schools' proximity (Columbus and Dayton are roughly 75 miles apart); of Miller's strong relationship with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, on whose staff he served in the 2007-08 season; and of the Buckeyes' unwillingness to schedule the Flyers, whom they had faced just once, a chance matchup in the '08 NIT, in 26 years.
Aside from Sibert -- who enthusiastically yet diplomatically discussed how much he relished the opportunity to face his former squad -- both teams downplayed the significance of the pairing, often described in reporters' questions as a big brother/little brother dynamic. Said Flyers center Matt Kavanaugh of that mindset: "It's definitely not in this locker room."
Indeed, once play began Dayton refused to play its underdog role. The Flyers equaled the Buckeyes' aggression from the start -- Miller has implored his charges all season to "attack" at every opportunity -- getting out and running off turnovers and working the ball inside, showing no hesitation to attack the teeth of the nation's fourth-most efficient defense. Sibert shot a quick look at the opponents' bench after making an early three-pointer (he would explain later that Shannon Scott had called out from his seat for Sibert to miss it as a favor) but was otherwise quiet in the first half, spending much of it glued to his own bench with a pair of fouls. Kavanaugh, a 5.5 points-per-game scorer entering the game, picked up some offensive slack, cleaning up around the glass and getting free on pick-and-rolls to score seven points in the game's first 10 minutes. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, got their offensive spark from Craft, who made all three of his field goals and all three free throws in the first half to lead the team with nine points.
The Flyers took a three-point lead into the break, and in the second half things picked up as if uninterrupted. By then Kavanaugh could not work so freely inside, getting the ball knocked loose on a couple occasions, and Ohio State's Sam Thompson Jr. -- who would finish with a game-high 18 points -- breathed life into a 10-0 Buckeyes run with a pair of crowd-pleasing dunks.
In the final minutes, one of the game's narratives finally took hold. Once upon a time, it was Sibert who had been instrumental in recruiting Craft, his longtime AAU teammate, to Columbus, where they followed through on a teenage dream by living as roommates in Sibert's sophomore season. Just under the four-minute mark of Thursday's game, with one point separating their teams, the two entered a brief duel. Sibert fouled Craft on a scoring drive then stripped Craft of the ball on the following possession, initiating a fast break that would end when Craft fouled Sibert with both hands and sent him to the free-throw line, where he made both shots. Craft answered by posting up on Sibert for a go-ahead and-one layup with two minutes left. "It was a good little battle," Sibert said afterward. "That's still my brother. Sad I had to end his career, but hey, that's basketball."
The Buckeyes took a two-point lead at 57-55 on a Thompson jumper with just under a minute to go, only for Scott to foul Dayton swingman Dyshawn Pierre on a three with 27 seconds left. Pierre -- a 65.8% free-throw shooter entering the game -- sank all three to put the Flyers back up two. That lead that lasted for only 10 seconds before Craft drove across the lane to score on a backspin-heavy layup with his right hand, putting Ohio State ahead 59-58 with 17 seconds remaining. The Flyers called timeout and devised the plan to get Sanford his look. Devin Oliver -- the team's second-leading scorer this season -- created a misdirection by feigning a screen for Sanford, triggering the slight hesitation needed from Craft to give Sanford room to drive.
"Exactly how how it happened was how we drew it up," said Kavanaugh.
Sanford's floater fell, and soon he was on the bottom of a dogpile, closing his eyes and thanking the heavens. Said Sibert of Sanford, "He has no idea what he did for me."
On the other end of the floor, after his own shot refused to fall, Sibert's onetime roommate could only fold his hands behind his head and stare up at the arena lights. The moment shone elsewhere.