For Thomas Walkup and SFA, a tough way to walk away

In a game decided by the smallest of margins — by one rebound, 1.5 seconds, one tweet of a referee’s whistle, whatever — Stephen F. Austin was left to consider the big picture.

“I've been dreading this moment for a long time,” Lumberjacks coach Brad Underwood said as he began his postgame rehash of a 76-75 loss to Notre Dame in an NCAA Tournament second-rounder Sunday in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. “So if I get emotional, I apologize. Because that's who I am.”

Then he talked about how Notre Dame made the plays it needed to make in the final 2:05, when the Fighting Irish erased a 75-70 deficit. The last was the game-winning tip-in by Irish freshman guard Rex Pflueger with 1.5 seconds left, but plenty of dominoes had to tumble just so for this to turn out the way it did.

“Just their day,” said Thomas Walkup, SFA’s do-everything dynamo.

Goodness knows UND has had its share of those — mostly in football, but occasionally in basketball as well. (See: “Clay, Dwight, 1974, UCLA.”)

This was all new for SFA, and a rollicking good time — “a blast,” as Walkup put it.

And the ’Jacks can only hope it becomes commonplace. Underwood said Walkup and the team’s other four seniors changed the culture at their school — that there is now a new standard, a higher level of expectation.

Walkup mentioned that, too.

“To get into the NCAA Tournament and win games is something I never thought I’d be doing, coming out of high school,” the Pasadena, Texas, native said. “It was always an aspiration, but whenever I got to SFA, that wasn’t the standard. To get to the tournament was the big thing — just getting here and being part of the show.”

Now, everyone seems to believe, they can set their sights higher — a wait-and-see proposition if ever there were one. How long will Underwood stick around? And whether he does or not, can the school unearth players like Walkup with any degree of regularity?

He certainly appeared to be a generational performer — an under-recruited, oft-injured high schooler who developed into a two-time Southland Conference Player of the Year. Not to mention a guy who stands to earn his second degree this spring (in marketing, after earlier getting one in management in December 2014).

“He's a better kid than he is a player, and that's what I'll miss,” Underwood said.

It was not idle talk, as Walkup showed once more following this most crushing defeat. Still in uniform, he leaned against a wall outside the SFA locker room and agreed to do a one-on-one interview with Max Bonnstetter, an 11-year-old from New Jersey representing Sports Illustrated for Kids.

“You’re the man,” Walkup told the youngster as they parted.

A telling moment, and far from Walkup’s first. Last summer, for instance, he texted Underwood about winning games — “multiple,” the younger man said — in NCAAs. The Lumberjacks had already done the Cinderella thing two years ago, knocking off fifth-seeded VCU in the tournament. This year, they wanted more. This year, they wanted to advance to the second weekend.

Walkup nearly made it so, following up his 33-point effort in the first-rounder against West Virginia with a 21-point, five-rebound, five-assist effort Sunday.

His free throws with 2:05 left made it 75-70 and concluded a 20-8 rush that lifted his team out of a 62-55 hole.

They never scored again, though.

Meantime UND’s Demetrius Jackson dropped in a layup, then two foul shots, the latter moments after SFA’s Clide Geffrard was whistled for a shaky over-the-back personal while tracking Walkup’s missed 3-pointer.

The ’Jacks ran another isolation play for Walkup on their last consequential trip of the season, but he was off the mark; so too was Ty Charles on the tip attempt with 20 seconds left.

Last-shot time. Jackson went hard to the goal but missed. Teammate Zach Auguste couldn’t land the stick-back, either, but Pflueger rose out of a crowd underneath the rim and poked the ball in with his right hand, his only basket of the game.

“It's a ball we should have come up with after the first one, and it's tough to see it go through,” said Walkup, who was immediately behind Pflueger during the fateful scrum.

And a victory they might have come up with, as a result.

“I think, hey, that’s a danged good basketball team, and we’re a danged good basketball team,” Walkup said. “I don’t think any basketball fan would say they’re much better than us or we’re much better than them. It was just two good teams, going at it. Tomorrow if we played them, we might beat them. I think it would be a good game then, too.”

As it is, they will have to be content with a 28-6 record. With a third consecutive NCAA appearance, a second consecutive undefeated conference run and a season that included a 21-game winning streak.

It all came to an end Sunday. And long after it did Walkup and his teammates emerged from the Barclays Center and met their families and friends at a Starbucks implanted in the outside of the building.

There were hugs — long hugs — and encouraging words.

Because really, all anybody wants to do is make this feeling last.

Above: Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger tips in the winning shot to defeat Stephen F. Austin 76-75 in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on Sunday in Brooklyn. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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