SAN DIEGO — Cinderella lives all over the NCAA Tournament bracket and has now assumed a spot in this land of fish tacos and stunning coastline, all because Virginia Commonwealth lost a basketball game on Friday night the only way it possibly could.
Stephen F. Austin is a public university founded in 1923 and located in Nacogdoches, Texas. It includes 120 areas of study, but odds are none cover how best to rally from a four-point deficit with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Lumberjacks discovered such magic and rallied to stun VCU 77-75 in overtime at Viejas Arena, where a No. 12 seed from the South Region lived another day to bask in the enchantment and thrill of the madness.
It took something crazy: His team trailing by four and the final seconds ticking away, Lumberjacks senior Desmond Haymon launched a 3-pointer from the right side. VCU freshman JeQuan Lewis closed out hard and was whistled for a foul as Haymon went falling to the ground with 3.6 seconds left.
The shot fell, and Haymon made the free throw after a timeout.
Tie game at 67. Overtime.
“Obviously, you don’t want to foul the shooter up four in that situation,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “(Lewis) said he didn’t foul, but nobody thinks they foul. You can’t even put yourself in that position to make it a judgment call. It’s a lesson. He’s a freshman. It’s a lesson for him and our team. I like it in a way that it hurts for all our guys and for everyone in our program. If it doesn’t, you’re in the wrong place.
“When you’re playing young guys, you have to live with freshman moments. You just hope they don’t come at the most crucial times. Tonight, they did.”
Said Lewis: “I just ran out to contest the shot, jumped to the side and he fell down. The ref called a foul.”
He had a chance to redeem himself at the end of overtime, but Lewis’ open 3-point attempt from the corner bounced away and the nation suddenly was introduced to an underdog that entered the field about as close to perfect as anyone not named Wichita State.
The Lumberjacks are 32-2 and have won 29 straight, a spotless 18-0 in the Southland Conference. They rank eighth nationally in assists. They really share the ball.
With incredible victory also comes the sort of story that defines the human element of this event. Haymon is a Mississippi native whose sister died before his freshman season, a young man who has dealt with heartache and injury during his time at Stephen F. Austin, who hadn’t played in an NCAA Tournament game until Friday.
“It took me to my senior year to get here,” Haymon said. “But good things come to those who wait. Through it all, I kept my faith and stayed strong for my family. This is a blessing.”
Not so much for VCU.
Three years removed from their magical run to the Final Four, the Rams failed miserably a test of Basketball 101. When up by four in the situation VCU faced, even when helping defensively, you never go near a 3-point shooter.
Never breathe on him.
Never enter his area code.
But they did, and for it, Stephen F. Austin, the school named for a name, the team that hasn’t lost since Nov. 23, moves into Sunday’s third round against UCLA.
Cinderella, at least in this town, wears purple.
“You don’t create culture overnight, and you don’t create tradition overnight,” first-year Lumberjacks coach Brad Underwood said. “I despise losing. Can’t stand it. I didn’t want my first head coaching job to be a bad one. But the community, a vibrant college town, great relationships, great friendships, the second winningest program in the state of Texas … It all drew me here. Very simple stuff, but that’s me. I’m wired different than most.
“Miracles happen. What a game. What a game.”
Maybe not a miracle.
But definitely some magic.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.