BUFFALO, N.Y. — Just when you thought the Buckeyes had it, they didn’t.
Up and down, at some points energized and others lethargic against No. 11-seed Dayton, the No. 6-seed Ohio State men’s basketball team found themselves in the driver’s seat with 17 seconds left in a second round matchup of the NCAA Tournament.
Team leader and senior guard Aaron Craft had just — as he so often has throughout his career — somehow contorted his body around a defender in the lane and flicked his left wrist to score and give his team a 59-58 lead.
“(Dayton had) been playing me to my right hand all game, so (I) went back to my left, saw an opening. Just tried to get it up on the glass and it went in for me,” Craft said after the game.
Then, after a timeout by the Flyers and a tough leaner in the lane by redshirt-senior guard Vee Sanford later, Craft had one last-ditch effort to save his team again.
But as his shot fell to the floor at the First Niagara Center and the buzzer sounded, reality began to set in.
The Buckeyes — and coach Thad Matta — wouldn’t be going to the Sweet Sixteen as they had the past four consecutive years.
“If you don’t write that article on the last play of the game, you don’t know basketball,” Matta said in the locker room after his team’s 60-59 loss to the Flyers. “Guy hit a tough shot, that’s college basketball. We get a shot, it doesn’t go in.”
“I didn’t shoot it hard enough. And that’s how our season’s gone,” Craft said. “We’ve been right there, 10 times. And this is just another one of those … we were right there and couldn’t do it.”
The Buckeyes (25-10, 12-9) tallied the first five points of the game against the Flyers (24-10, 11-7), but found themselves trailing, 21-15, five seconds after the midway point in the first half.
Dayton — like many others have before them while playing OSU this year — came with more energy to earn a 33-30 advantage at halftime. Just as they did against Purdue and Nebraska last week in the Big Ten Tournament, the Buckeyes sleepwalked their way through parts of the game Thursday.
Only this time, they couldn’t get over the hump.
“That has kind of been the deal. You saw when we went on the 10-0 run, what got us our points was our defense and as I’ve said all, all from day one, this is a team that puts a lot of pressure on our defense every single possession,” Matta said. “It’s one of those where we’d have spurts where we’d get in some flows, but it wasn’t enough.”
The lead changed hands nine times in the game’s final 10:23, but ultimately it was the team with less NCAA Tournament experience — Dayton’s roster had played in a combined four NCAA Tournament games prior to Thursday, combined to 22 for OSU’s — that prevailed.
“At this part of the season, you would think that we would know what to do in those types of situations,” junior forward LaQuinton Ross said of the late-game swings. “Especially being here before, in the NCAA Tournament, you would think that they knew and unfortunately that didn’t happen for us.”
Ross — OSU’s leading scorer on the season — finished with just 10 points, five below his average. Junior forward Sam Thompson led the way with a game-high 18 for OSU, while Craft finished with 16 in his final game in the Scarlet and Gray.
“It’s a bitter feeling. You don’t want to send your seniors out on a note like this,” Thompson said. “But I love them to death, I wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors and they’ll go down as having two of the best careers that Ohio State has ever seen.”
OSU’s other senior guard, Lenzelle Smith Jr., continued his recent tough stretch of games against the Flyers, scoring just six points. Smith Jr. failed to score in double figures in his last five games as a Buckeye.
“This is definitely hard, I just — for the type of career me and Aaron had, it hurts that much more to end it like this,” Smith Jr. said after the loss. “It caps it off, this is not a showing of what we have done for four years and it sucks.”
It is clear something was off this entire season for OSU, even with it rising as high as No. 3 in the rankings early in the year. But that was before Big Ten play began, and the Buckeyes finished with only 10 conference wins in the regular season — the first time they’ve done that since 2008-09.
“If anything, we’ll look at this and put ourselves in positions of understanding what it takes to win on a consistent basis,” Matta said. “It’s not just putting on a uniform that says Ohio State, it’s about going out and getting the job done.”