BUFFALO - Aside from having the game and the season in his hands, Vee Sanford had the weight of a state on his shoulders. It was a circumstance very familiar to the man who was guarding him, Ohio State senior Aaron Craft.
"That stuff was irrelevant," said Sanford, a Dayton senior for whom coach Archie Miller called the final play. "I was just trying to get to the basket."
Sanford got to the basket just fine. He beat Craft off the dribble, scored the biggest two points of his life with 3.8 seconds left, then endured the sight of Craft's buzzer shot rattling around and out. He carried a bunch of subplots to the bottom of a swarming pile of celebrating teammates that is likely to make the tournament highlight clips.
Dayton beat Ohio State, 60-59, in what was seen as a classic Little Brother-Big Brother matchup and was the first game of this year's NCAA Tournament for each side. It obviously was the final one for the Buckeyes.
"This is the fourth game-winner hit on me in my time here. I can't change it," said Craft, the pre-med major from Findlay, Ohio, and point guard for his home state's marquee team.
He was referring to the fact that in the previous three seasons, the Buckeyes lost by two, two and four points. "Give Dayton a lot of credit. Obviously, he made a big shot down the stretch. They made the last punch and we couldn't."
This story had been boiling for a long time. Start with the fact that the Atlantic 10's Dayton (24-10) is perennially in the shadow of the Big Ten's Ohio State (25-10). There's the issue of Ohio State not going out of its way to schedule in-state non-conference games.
Then you had Dayton point guard Jordan Sibert, who had transferred from Ohio State (Craft outplayed him Thursday). And there was the matter of Miller having earned his job by having been an assistant to Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
But all that mattered at the end were big plays. Craft scored on a gutsy, creative flip with 15 seconds left to put Ohio State ahead 59-58. Then it was time for Sanford, a transfer from Georgetown, who just concentrated on going to his right.
"Craft is a great defender, great player. But the door was wide open as far as when the floor was cleared. I just felt me going right was a great opportunity," Sanford said, adding after his 10-point game that he used the floater move he had practiced since he was a rather short fourth-grader.
Craft has practiced every phase of the game all of his life. Despite his 16 points (second to teammate Sam Thompson's 18), he left feeling empty.
"It's amazing the way that, you know, defense has kind of been my thing and it's amazing how it's going to end with a kid getting the game-winner on me," Craft said. "Obviously, I think I knew he wanted to go right. There's so many things that are going through my mind right now that I wish could have gone differently, but they didn't."
Had there been a slightly different spin on his final shot, he would have been the hero, looking forward to a game Saturday.
"I thought it was going in," said Miller, the Dayton coach and former Buckeyes assistant. "I've watched those guys win that game a thousand times."
Not this time, though, not one last time for Craft. This was a day for Sanford and the Dayton Flyers, heads of state.