Get all of Gabriel Baumgaertner’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
It came as no surprise that turnovers made the ultimate difference in Friday’s matchup between No. 3 West Virginia and No. 14 Stephen F. Austin. The surprise was that Stephen F. Austin was the markedly better defense.
With 29 points off of 22 West Virginia turnovers, the Lumberjacks stunned a West Virginia side lauded for its high-pressure defense and transition offense with a 70–56 win on Friday night in Brooklyn. What was an impressive performance in the first half became a showcase in the second frame, as the Lumberjacks routinely picked off Mountaineer crosscourt passes and silenced an offense known for its speed and athleticism.
The upset didn’t jolt the college basketball world quite like Middle Tennessee State’s stunner over Michigan State, and it shouldn’t have. Just two years removed from their upset of VCU in the first round, the Lumberjacks logged their second tournament victory under head coach Brad Underwood, who may be a hot commodity once the season ends.
The two sides entered the matchup as the top two defenses in the nation in turnover percentage, but it was Lumberjacks, with relentless perimeter pressure and active hands inside, who showcased why they rank No. 1 in that category.
Senior Thomas Walkup led Stephen F. Austin with 33 points and nine rebounds, and was one of several guards who helped carve up West Virginia’s vaunted full court press. The senior guard, who could have been mistaken for the mascot in airport security, became an instant favorite of the Brooklyn crowd with some creative dribbling and a stepback jumper to seal the win with under two minutes remaining.
West Virginia’s struggles with turnovers, coupled with its inability to turn over Stephen F. Austin with its full-court press, manifested itself in a 31–28 deficit to end the first half. It only got worse after the break. The Mountaineers shot an abysmal 25% in the second half and never made a concentrated run after the Lumberjacks opened up their lead to eight with 7:53 remaining.
Why it matters
This wasn’t a game where everything clicked for Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks shot an underwhelming 31% from the field, finished the first half with only eight field goals from the floor and frequently struggled against West Virginia’s perimeter length.
The reality is that Stephen F. Austin is simply an outstanding defensive team that could make a legitimate run to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. Despite a noticeable size and athleticism disadvantage to a Mountaineer team that thrives in transition and at forcing backcourt turnovers, the Lumberjacks’ organization on offense allowed them to slice up West Virginia’s press, and their pressure allowed them to continue to force turnovers.
It may sound crazy now, but Stephen F. Austin looked like a potential Elite Eight team on Friday night.
Stephen F. Austin will take on the winner of No. 11 Michigan and No. 6 Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center.