On March 18 in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, West Virginia played Stephen F. Austin, not Stephen A. Smith.
Thomas Walkup and the Lumberjacks left no doubt with a 70-56 victory against the No. 3 seeded Mountaineers. The sports moment judged the greatest in school history propelled SFA to the round of 32, where they missed going to the Sweet 16 by one point against No. 6-seeded Notre Dame in a 76-75 loss.
But with their victory against West Virginia, Walkup and SFA impressed themselves on the NCAA Tournament and the national consciousness.
Gordie Jones was there for ASN to tell the story:
So here came West Virginia — “Press Virginia,” as everyone had taken to calling the Mountaineers — the hardest-playing team in all the land. The team that attacked everyone with fullcourt pressure, turned teams over, turned them inside out.
But as Friday night’s NCAA first-rounder between WVU and Stephen F. Austin wore on, it became apparent that the Mountaineers weren’t the baddest club in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. That they were being beaten at their own game. And on Sunday, they pushed Notre Dame to the limit before falling on a last-second tip-in.
That’s right — West Virginia was out-West Virginia’d.
Or, as Lumberjacks reserve guard Jared Johnson put it, “I think we out-SFA’d West Virginia.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Didn’t the ’Jacks — who, maybe, should now be known as Stephen (Press) Austin — enter the game with an impressive defensive pedigree of their own? Weren’t they No. 1 in the nation in turnovers produced (18.63, a cruller ahead of WVU’s 18.15 norm)?
Well, yes. But that was in mid-major-ville — specifically, the Southland Conference. That, not to mention their No. 14 seeding, apparently left No. 3 West Virginia ripe for the picking.
And picked they were. The ’Jacks attacked and scrambled and dove and scrapped, and in the process neutered the Mountaineers. Guard/forward Thomas Walkup, the two-time Southland Player of the Year, had 33 points in the 70-56 victory, including 19-for-20 free throw shooting and an exclamation mark of a 3-pointer with 1:08 left, but offense was largely a rumor in this glorious mess of a game.
SFA shot 30.9% from the floor, WVU 30.8%. There were 52 fouls and 66 free throw attempts, but turnovers, naturally, told the tale better than anything else.
The Lumberjacks coughed the ball up just seven times, WVU 22.
Leading to 29 points.
“I’ve just got to give my hats-off to Stephen F. Austin,” West Virginia forward Devin Williams said. “They did what they were supposed to do. Their play showed how focused and prepared they were, and we just didn’t take it serious. That’s what happens in this tournament when you don’t take people serious.”
Funny thing is, the Lumberjacks could understand how they might be taken lightly, despite the fact that they upended No. 5 VCU as a 12-seed in NCAAs, just two years ago.
“Before I came, I didn’t know who SFA is,” said senior forward Clide Geffrard, a Florida native. “So I said the same thing he was saying: ‘Stephen A.?’ So I didn’t really take that to heart.”
SFA’s motivation was, rather, twofold. The ’Jacks, winners of 21 consecutive games, wanted to survive the tournament’s first weekend — something they can do with an upset of Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon — as Walkup told ASN this past week.
And they wanted to prove that they could be as effective playing WVU’s style as the Mountaineers are themselves.
That they mirror one another is no surprise. SFA coach Brad Underwood and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins have known each other since 1988, and Huggins hired Underwood as his director of basketball operations at Kansas State in 2006, Underwood’s first Division I job.
Underwood said he called off the dogs to some extent Friday, after the Mountaineers repeatedly broke the press early in the game. But the ’Jacks swarmed them in every other way.
“They just wanted it more,” WVU forward Esa Ahmad said. “They wanted every 50-50 ball.”
SFA fell behind by nine early on, but took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by guard Demetrious Floyd with 57 seconds left in the first half.
They were challenged on occasion thereafter, but always had the answer. Usually it was provided by Walkup, who began growing a beard on Nov. 1 and out of superstition refused to shave when his team went on its winning streak. It has reached the point where he has actually begun to resemble the Lumberjack mascot.
The 6-4 senior long ago began to resemble a big-time player, something he admittedly was not when he arrived at SFA from Pasadena, Texas, near Houston.
“I wasn’t any good,” he said. “These (coaches) made me.”
Underwood and Co. counter by saying Walkup is a self-made superstar. Whatever the case, he had his fingerprints all over this one, especially at the end. With 3:38 left he drove the baseline and tried to throw down a thunderous dunk, only to draw a foul.
And on his signature 3 late in the game, he found himself isolated against Williams, beyond the top of the circle. Note that Williams, a sculpted 6-9, 255-pounder, once attended Montverde Academy in Florida, a renowned hoops factory. Walkup had been recruited only by SFA and Houston Baptist.
No matter. He lost Williams with a crossover dribble and hit a pull-up from beyond the arc on the left wing.
Hey, these things happen, every March.
Bullies get vanquished.
And teams get SFA’d.
On the cover and above: Stephen F. Austin’s Thomas Walkup (0) in action against West Virginia. (Courtesy Hardy Meredith/Stephen F. Austin)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Stephen F. Austin and UT Martin
• Tuesday: Tennessee State and Tennessee Tech
• Wednesday: Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and UTEP
• Thursday: Texas Rio Grande Valley and UTSA
• Friday: The Citadel and Toledo