SAN DIEGO -- Otha Haymon, 56, had never stepped on an airplane prior to this week. But the Pickens, Miss., native said he made himself a promise when his son Desmond left for college four years ago. If Desmond’s team, Stephen F. Austin, ever made the NCAA tournament, Otha would fly to wherever the game was being played.
Whatever the airfare, Otha got his money’s worth Friday night. He was here in the Viejas Arena stands when his son etched himself into March Madness lore. With his team down four points in the final seconds, Desmond Haymon launched a three-pointer from the wing, made it, and drew an inexplicable foul on VCU’s JeQuan Lewis with 3.7 seconds left. Haymon made the free throw, and a game that VCU had all but locked up just seven seconds earlier went to overtime, where Haymon hit another bomb, this one putting the 12th-seeded Lumberjacks up for good in their 77-75 upset of the fifth-seeded Rams. It marked the school’s first-ever NCAA tourney win.
“That’s March Madness at it’s best right there,” said Stephen F. Austin shooting guard Thomas Walkup.
In what was already a drama-filled two-day Round of 64, the Lumberjacks’ upset was not the tourney’s most surprising (hello, Mercer) but it would be hard to eclipse the sequence of events it took to make it happen. As late as 10 seconds remaining in regulation, VCU’s Jordan Burgess stood at the line with two free throws and a chance to put the Rams up by six. Stephen F. Austin had built a 40-30 lead early in the second half before VCU unleashed its patented brand of “Havoc,” forcing a slew of turnovers en route to a 13-0 run – and an even bigger 24-3 onslaught – that put the Rams up 54-43 with 8:23 remaining.
“Honestly, I thought we had it,” said VCU’s Burgess. “We had ‘em on the ropes.”
But Stephen F. Austin would not let its 28-game winning streak end without a fight. It started taking care of the ball. It started making shots, like Jacob Parker’s three-pointer to cut the lead to five with 2:55 left.
But it still needed some breaks.
The first came when Burgess missed both of those potentially game-sealing free-throw attempts, giving the Lumberjacks a window. Walkup pushed the ball up court, knowing they needed to score quickly, and appeared headed straight to the rack, but a familiar voice was calling to him from the corner.
“I heard, ‘Tom, Tom, Tom,” said Walkup. “And when Des calls for the ball, he doesn’t miss.”
He did not. But even then, Stephen F. Austin needed that second break. It happened when Haymon – a four-year starter and the Lumberjacks’ unquestioned leader -- released the ball. Lewis grazed his arm on the way down and the whistle blew.
“There it is,” thought Walkup. “He hit it and we lucked out with that foul.”
Stephen F. Austin prepared for VCU’s “Havoc” this week by blaring music at practice. Some AC/DC, some rap. Anything to simulate the head-pounding chaos Shaka Smart’s teams inevitably create with their turnover-inducing brand of defense.
But no sound could be louder than the roar than that erupted throughout the arena when Haymon’s shot fell and that whistle blew. It’s not like there were thousands of Lumberjacks fans in attendance. It was one of those incredible moments any basketball fan can appreciate and it seemed to completely change the energy. Two defensively oriented teams started draining shot after shot in overtime. VCU’s Treveon Graham hit a 3 to go up 73-31 with 2:40 left. Haymon answered on the other end with his fadeway three with the shot clock winding down. Parker extended the lead to three on a jumper with 1:10 remaining. Lewis answered with a layup on the other end.
But the game ended on another three-point attempt from the wing, this one one the opposite sideline on the other end of the court. On a final possession that began with 14 seconds left, Lewis found himself with an open look for a game-ending shot. But it missed. And as Lewis crumpled to the ground in agony (with a TV cameraman hovering over him for an uncomfortably long time), Stephen F. Austin’s coaches and players poured out on to the court.
“Well,” said first-year Lumberjacks coach Brad Underwood, “miracles truly do happen. What a game! What a game!”
That the Lumberjacks beat the Rams, a more established mid-major due to their 2011 Final Four run, was not itself a miracle. In fact it seemed to be everyone’s en vogue upset pick in the moments and days after the bracket came out. Even if most fans and writers had not seen Stephen F. Austin play, they respected a team that had not lost since Nov. 23.
But Haymon’s four-point play was unquestionably a March Madness miracle – the kind he grew up watching in Mississippi.
“I always told my dad, ‘That’s going to be me one day,” said Haymon.
Otha remembered those words when he boarded that long-awaited flight to San Diego. And by the way, flying wasn’t nearly as scary as Otha had imagined. On the contrary, “It was pretty cool,” he said Friday night.
Even cooler that it led to watching his son hit one of the biggest shots of the NCAA tournament.
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