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BROOKLYN — Stephen F. Austin knows what this feels like. In 2014, the Lumberjacks delivered a miraculous win over Virginia Commonwealth, aided by a ridiculous four-point play in the final seconds of regulation. It had all the trappings of a classic NCAA tournament upset—the 5–12 seed mythology, an indelible moment and a school whose name few recognized before writing the name of the other school into the next round of their bracket. The Lumberjacks swung and connected, but their stay in the tournament was short-lived, brought to an end in decisive fashion (17 points) by a blueblood (UCLA) with multiple future NBA draft picks.
This felt different.
This felt like a ruthless winner simply going about its business. This felt like a mid-major that resented it was classified as such. This felt like a team residing on the bottom of the Division I totem pole calmly dismantling one of the top squads in one of the nation’s top leagues. No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin’s 70–56 win over No. 3 West Virginia was an upset only because a committee, a majority of whose members are athletic directors from major-conference schools, made it so. If the Lumberjacks didn’t resonate on a national scale a couple of years ago, on Friday they made a statement that will be impossible to ignore no matter how long their tourney run lasts.
Stephen F. Austin is a public school with an enrollment of 12,606 situated in a woody tract of east Texas. It has a mascot named Blake Loggins who wields a purple axe with a blade bearing the phrase “That Axe Tho.” The Lumberjacks play in the Southland Conference, and for the last three years, they have notched 89 combined victories and three league titles—success so staggering that a fan blog describes it as “too much.” This isn’t Stephen F. Austin’s first brush with glory; it won 24 games and made the NCAAs in 2009. But Brad Underwood has taken the program and elevated it to a level most mid-majors outside of Nacogdoches, Texas, now envy.
Hired as the Lumberjacks’ coach in 2013 after assistant stints at South Carolina, Kansas State and Western Illinois, as well as head-coaching tenures at two community colleges, Underwood did not land his first Division I head coaching position until he was 49. He has led Stephen F. Austin to the tourney every season, but this, he said, is his best team yet.
“To say that it’s a surprise, it’s not,” said Underwood, standing in a Barclays Center tunnel outside Stephen F. Austin’s locker room, trying to put into perspective how his team made West Virginia, the Big 12’s second-place finisher and a top-10 team on Kenpom.com, look plainly ordinary.
To beat West Virginia, the Lumberjacks needed to negate what the Mountaineers do best: turn opponents over on 25% of their possessions, which ranks second nationally, according to Kenpom.com. Stephen F. Austin coughed it up only 10% of the time. The Lumberjacks carved up the Mountaineers by dribbling out of double teams, moving away from the ball and flinging passes a second before West Virginia could deflect or steal them. According to assistant coach Mike Boynton Jr., who took the lead on scouting West Virginia, the Lumberjacks prepared for “Press Virginia” by running extra defenders against five-man units in practice.
“If we can break that, we felt like we can break anybody’s press,” said junior forward C.J. Williams.
The problem for West Virginia is that it could not solve the Lumberjacks’ brand of turnover creation. Stephen F. Austin leads the nation in forcing giveaways on 26.1% of opponents’ possessions and disrupted the Mountaineers by applying intense ball pressure and getting into passing the lanes. The result? West Virginia watched the ball fly out of its possession to the Lumberjacks on 36.1% of their trips down the floor.
“We've done it all year,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said afterward. “This isn't a new deal for us. It’s just we’ve made up for it in other ways that we didn’t make up for either.”
West Virginia will go home ruing a short run in the postseason after emerging near the top of the Big 12 meat grinder, while also cognizant of the quality of opponent responsible for its dismissal. Stephen F. Austin will face No. 6 seed Notre Dame in the Round of 32 on Sunday after the Irish beat No. 11 seed Michigan on Friday night.
“Their play showed how focused and prepared they were, and we just didn’t take it serious,” Mountaineers big man Devin Williams said of the Lumberjacks.
In the moments before tip-off, Huggins and Underwood shared an embrace and shook hands near mid-court before walking back to their respective sidelines. The two coaches go back to when Huggins was recruiting players to Cincinnati under Underwood’s charge at Dodge Community College. His familiarity with Huggins was a compelling pregame storyline, a master-apprentice angle to a matchup that could also be described as a battle of strengths. By the time the game ended, a single player had captured the nation’s attention.
Stephen F. Austin doesn’t just carry around a lumberjack who waves his axe during lineup introductions. It features another lumberjack as its best player.
Thomas Walkup is a 6'5", 208-pound guard with sculpted biceps and a thick, blond beard. The comparisons are inevitable. When asked whether his appearance was a deliberate effort to resemble his team’s mascot, Walkup cited being “pretty superstitious” as the reason for keeping the beard, which he says he began growing on Nov. 1 in the spirit of No-Shave November. According to Walkup, he received scholarship offers from only two programs (Stephen F. Austin and Houston Baptist) while playing at Deer Park High School in Pasadena, Texas.
“There was a reason I didn’t have any other scholarship offers besides those two—I wasn’t any good,” Walkup said.
That may be true, but on Friday, Walkup looked like the best player on the floor, scoring 33 points and adding nine rebounds, five steals and four assists. He was instrumental in helping the Lumberjacks deal with West Virginia’s pressure. He attacked the Mountaineers off the dribble and either finished at the rim or drew fouls. He helped Stephen F. Austin handle West Virginia’s superior size and length by holding up defensively against bigger opponents. And, most memorably, he provided one of the most exhilarating moments of the first round of the tourney, a gaudy dribbling sequence leading into a pull-up jumper that extended Stephen F. Austin’s lead to 15 points with just over a minute remaining.
Celebrating in the locker room after the game, Walkup compared the win over West Virginia to Stephen F. Austin’s last tournament victory.
“We were just happy to be there and beating VCU was just icing on the cake,” he said, adding, “Now we’re trying to win, not just happy to be a part of the show.”
His message is a direct extension of the quote, attributed to Christopher Reeve, that Boynton Jr. relayed to the team before it took the floor against West Virginia: “Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean.”
Away from their natural habitat, the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin have done the latter in this NCAA tournament.