Hero Sanford: ‘It’s just playing basketball’

When he broke from the huddle with 10.8 seconds left with his Dayton Flyers down by one to Ohio State in the NCAA tournament and the focus, not only of Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes’ best defender, but the entire First Niagara Arena crowd about to zero in on him, Vee Sanford said he heard just one thing.

“Our guys all told me to relax,” the UD guard said. “They told me just to relax and do what I do.”

In the breathless final seconds of Thursday afternoon’s game, Flyers coach Archie Miller had informed his gathered players that Sanford — the quiet guy who, without complaint or posturing had given up his starting spot from a year ago to become an off-the-bench spark “for the good of the team,” as he explained it — would carry the hopes of victory on a planned drive to the basket against the Big Ten’s defender of the year two of the past three seasons.


How could he?

“Yeah, I could,” Sanford said softly. “It’s just playing basketball, whether it’s in a packed arena like this or outside in the park.”

In fact, he was about to resort to a trademark shot that he developed in the public parks growing up in Lexington, Ky.

“I used to be really small in high school, about 5-7 or 5-8,” he said.

His dad, Vincent Sanford, an assistant coach at Lexington Catholic, told him he needed an equalizer if he hoped to play against bigger guys and taught his boy how to drive and loft a feathery floater that would arch over towering defenders.

“My father had me work on that shot as much as I could,” Sanford said. “I probably started with it all the way back in fourth grade. We’d be out in the park with the wind blowing and he would push me and shove me as I’d come in for that shot. We did it over and over and over.”

As he perfected the move, he said he also began to grow: “I went from 5-8 to maybe 6-foot-1. Then I grew to about 6-4. Probably when I transferred here (after two seasons at Georgetown) I grew a little bit, too.”

He certainly grew Thursday when, after a pressurized see-saw game that already had seen 14 lead changes, he took the inbounded ball and the Flyers’ hopes straight at Craft.

Teammate Devin Oliver had provided the deception, clearing out from the right side of the court as if headed to set a screen for another player.

“Coach wanted the floor open and wanted me to go right,” Sanford said. “The main thing was for me to get to the basket and when Devin cleared, the whole right lane did open.”

The Flyers — and probably Craft as well — knew what was coming.

“Vee is one of the toughest drivers in the nation,” said Devon Scott, UD’s backup big man. “Believe it or not, he’s also one of the strongest dudes on the team. He doesn’t look it — he’s not too beefy — but he’s only got four-percent body fat. He’s all muscle.”

Sanford got a step on Craft and drove, and as the Bucks defender was trying to recover, he launched that old standby floater off the glass and in to give UD the 60-59 lead with 3.8 seconds left.

Craft tried to answer, roaring back with the ball and barreling into the middle of four defenders as he launched a 10-footer that caromed off the backboard and across the rim at the buzzer.

The 11th-seeded, 24-10 Flyers had pulled off the upset and now advance to play Syracuse here on Saturday.

At the buzzer Craft collapsed to the floor in defeat and later would lament that he hadn’t tried to strip the ball from Sanford:

“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. He made a big shot, a big-time play and we couldn’t answer.”

At the buzzer Oliver said he needed a second to realize what had happened:

“You know what’s really funny,” he said. “I wasn’t really paying attention. I thought the score was tied and I was just relieved Craft missed the last shot. Then I saw everybody cheering at half court, but I still didn’t know until I looked up at the scoreboard and saw we won. Then I just went and tackled Vee.”

The other UD players on the court and everyone from the bench converged on the senior guard as well, all wanting to join not only the celebration of Flyer success, but the embrace of one of the team’s more respected players.

“No one deserves this more than Vee,” said Oliver, who had 11 points. “He sacrificed early in the season to be the sixth man off the bench and it made us better.”

Flyers guard Jordan Sibert, the OSU transfer who finished with nine points, agreed: “Vee deserves everything he’s getting today. He is one of the most humbling guys I’ve ever met in my life. He just supports the team regardless of his position. That last shot was his blessing.”

The shot — and, to a lesser extent, the three pressurized free throws Dyshawn Pierre hit with 20.9 seconds left — will go down in Flyers lore.

Their heroics helped the Flyers dump sixth-seeded Ohio State, a team that before Thursday had played them once since 1988. More importantly it helped UD win a game in the NCAA tournament for the third time in 30 years.

“This’ll go down in the history books ,” said Scott. “One day down the road I’ll be able to look back and tell my kid, ‘Look, we won that game.’ And this is just the start. We want to keep advancing. We don’t have to take a back seat to anybody.”

The mound of joyous Flyers got bigger and bigger on the court — with Sanford buried somewhere at the bottom — and later a still-grinning Oliver summed up the experience:

“March Madness is real. It really is. We all feel it.”

And what exactly did it feel like?

“Well, with everybody jumping on me, I couldn’t breathe,” Sanford said with a smile. “I just closed my eyes…and thanked God.”

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