SAN DIEGO — Meet your new NCAA tournament darlings: The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks.
Trailing most of the second half after a meltdown against Virginia Commonwealth’s relentless pressure, the gritty ‘Jacks tied the game on Desmond Haymon’s improbable four-play play with 3.6 seconds left in regulation and survived in overtime for a 77-75 win over VCU on Friday night.
In an NCAA tournament that’s been filled with upsets and wild finishes, SFA pulled off one for the ages.
The South Region’s No. 5 seed, VCU (23-10) was firmly in control after its swarming defense flustered SFA during a big second-half run.
The feisty and 12th-seeded Lumberjacks (32-2) kept hanging around, though, and came up with the kind of finish that’s sure to make one them of the bracket’s favorites this year.
Given a chance after VCU’s Jordan Burgess missed two free throws with 10 seconds left, the Lumberjacks worked the ball around to the wing, where Haymon launched a 3-pointer and was fouled by JaQuan Lewis. The crowd was still buzzing when VCU called timeout to try icing Haymon, but the senior calmly knocked the free throw down.
After a desperation heave by VCU failed at the end of regulation, and then Haymon put the ‘Jacks ahead in overtime on a 3-pointer with 2 minutes left.
The tense moments still weren’t done.
With 14 seconds left, SFA’s Thomas Walkup made 1 of 2 free throws, giving VCU a final shot the win. The Rams got a good look, too, working the ball to Lewis for an open 3-pointer on the wing.
His shot went long, the Lumberjacks grabbed the rebound, then stormed the floor after improbably extending the nation’s second-longest winning streak to 29 games.
Jacob Paker scored 22 points and Haymon had 17 for SFA, which moves into Sunday’s third-round game against the Tulsa-UCLA winner.
Treveon Graham had 19 points, Burgess 14 and Lewis finished with 13 for the disappointed Rams, the third No. 5 seed to lose this tournament.
Every year, the NCAA tournament has a feel-good team fans lock onto, like Florida Gulf Coast and Dunk City last year.
SFA certainly had qualifications to be this year’s darling: A fun-loving group of players led by a long-haired shooter they call Sunshine, a frenetic style — at least when it comes to half-court defense — and the nation’s second-longest winning streak at 29.
But for Lumberjacks to become the latest lovable lower seed, they had to get past VCU, a team that had been-there, done-that with the whole underdog thing.
The Rams had a magical run of their own, reaching the 2011 Final Four, and have been consistent winners since, reaching the NCAA tournament four straight years.
Oh, yeah, VCU has that defense, too. It’s called Havoc and it has created more turnovers and steals than any other team in the country the past two seasons.
SFA plays a little D of its own — more of the half-court variety than the Rams — so naturally tipped passes, floor burns and scraps for loose balls filled the arena when they met on the court for the first time.
The Lumberjacks picked their way through the havoc with pinpoint passing on backdoor cuts and the interior, taking a six-point lead into halftime on Parker’s last-second 3-pointer.
VCU made the game more chaotic — Havotic? — with its pressure to start the second half and started working the ball inside, racing through an 11-0 run to go up 52-43.
The Rams stayed in control most of the half, but missed four free throws in the final 32 seconds to give the Lumberjacks a shot at their improbable victory.