Cody Cousino / Photo editor
NEW ORLEANS – The final buzzer sounded and William Buford lay crumpled on the playing surface, head hung between his knees.
The sight of the player collapsed on the colorfully painted Final Four court was a stark contrast to the poise the Ohio State senior guard displayed during the Buckeyes’ National Semifinal game against Kansas at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Saturday.
On a night when OSU was without its top postseason scorer, sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, for long stretches due to foul trouble and injury, Buford shined on college basketball’s grandest stage. He scored 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field.
Buford acted his age in the biggest game of the season, connecting on 3-of-5 3-point attempts while also hitting each of four free-throw attempts.
Of course, every game is the biggest game of the season in the NCAA Tournament. That’s because any game could be the last of the season for a team and its fans.
Saturday’s 64-62 loss against KU was the last game of Buford’s collegiate career.
After the game, he still hadn’t gripped the fact that it was all over.
“This is my last college game. It’s over for me. It’s just kind of crazy,” Buford said. “I’ve been playing college basketball for four years and for it to end like this is amazing. I’m really not grasping it right now.”
The night began with much promise as OSU led by as much as 13 in the first half and took a nine-point lead going into the second half.
Buford, who wore the No. 44 jersey through four seasons for OSU, said he thought his team was on its way to advancing to Monday’s National Championship game.
“I actually thought we had the game won throughout the whole game,” Buford said, “especially the first half.”
It was the teams’ second-half shooting that surprised Buford.
“We don’t usually shoot this bad in the second half,” Buford said. “That’s kind of mind-boggling a little bit.”
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The Buckeyes shot 24 percent on 8-of-33 shooting in the second stanza, and their lead became a deficit as the final minutes of regulation arrived.
After junior forward Thomas Robinson added two free-throws for the Jayhawks to put his team up, 56-55, KU went on an 8-6 run in the final three minutes to hold OSU off. The Buckeyes misfired on several 3-point attempts in the closing seconds.
KU finally dribbled the clock out after sophomore guard Aaron Craft committed a lane-violation while attempting to collect his own rebound on an intentionally-missed free-throw.
Buford said his team relinquished the momentum that helped it jump to a 13-point lead in the first half.
“They’re a tremendous team with a tremendous coach, and it just seemed like they wanted it more than we wanted it in the second half,” Buford said.
Buford departed the collegiate playing surface for the last time and, to his left, KU fans cheered deliriously – their team overcame the first-half deficit to advance to Monday’s National Championship Game against Kentucky, the tournament’s No. 1-overall seed.
As Buford exited the court and his OSU career, he did so tied with Jerry Lucas as the No. 3 all-time scorer in OSU program history with 1,990 points.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said he couldn’t put Buford’s contributions to the OSU program into words.
“Just watching his maturity, watching him grow as a person,” Matta said. “I don’t know how many wins he ended up with in four years, but I know it was a lot.”
Buford collected 116 wins in his career.
Saturday was Buford’s 30th loss.
Still claiming to be in disbelief, Buford offered this advice mere minutes after his days as a collegiate basketball player had ended: “Don’t take your college career for granted,” he said. “It flies by.”