Nathan Bain stood in this impossible position, on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium—“the Mecca of college basketball,” as he called it—and tried hard not to cry. He was wearing headphones and looking into the camera, lip trembling and eyes watering, the sudden hero of an unfathomable shocker, life and sports having taken him to a place he could not have dreamed.
The Stephen F. Austin senior had just made the basket of a lifetime—a runout layup that left his hand with about a tenth of a second on the clock—to beat almighty, No. 1 ranked Duke in overtime, 85-83. It is quite likely the most stunning loss in Blue Devils history, and without question the greatest win in the history of Stephen F. Austin athletics, a small school in East Texas that plays in the Southland Conference.
It is precisely the kind of opponent Mike Krzyzewski and other blueblood coaches schedule around the holidays to pad the win total. Instead, just as Kentucky learned earlier this month when it lost as the No. 1 team to Evansville, we are reminded that college basketball remains the most unscripted of sports.
And it produces the most unlikely of heroes, with fate and fortune placing Bain in that role Tuesday night.
He was asked by the Fox Sports regional TV crew about the play—about his race downcourt against the clock, stunningly alone, trying to finish the biggest win in school history in the nick of time.
“I looked up at the clock, I saw I had about 2.6 seconds,” Bain said afterward. “I knew I had to get up on my horse.”
Bain said it with the lilt of a Bahamian accent. It supplied a context to his life reaching far beyond this burst of basketball fame.
A native of Freeport, Bahamas, Bain’s family saw their island nearly destroyed by Hurricane Dorian. The family lost “just about everything,” Bain told KTRE TV station in Nacogdoches, Texas, in early September. His father, a minister, had his church nearly destroyed. The family home was badly damaged.
SFA rallied around Bain, a hard-working fifth-year senior. He had come to America to play at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, and the Lumberjacks landed the three-star recruit. Somehow, a kid from the Caribbean started putting down roots in East Texas, and the community gave back when he was in need.
The school’s compliance office set up a GoFundMe account to help. Tuesday night, after the world became aware of Bain and his family’s plight, the donations flowed in anew.
“My family lost a whole lot this year,” Bain told the TV crew. “I’m trying not to get emotional, whew… I’m just playing for my family back home in the Bahamas. I’m just trying to make my country proud.”
He made two countries proud Tuesday night—his home country and his adopted land, where everyone loves an underdog and a lot of people cannot stand Duke.
The Lumberjacks, coming off a loss at Rutgers, were never out of this contest. Down just five at halftime, they battled a team flush with NBA talent and with the all-time winningest men’s coach on the bench. Never flustered, SFA withstood foul trouble to get the game into overtime.
Once there, the scoring slowed to a crawl. With the score tied at 83, the Blue Devils’ final possession was a mess—a Tre Jones feed inside was deflected away, and SFA’s Gavin Kensmil ended up with it while sitting on the floor in the lane. Instead of calling timeout, he passed to Bain, who dribbled between two Duke defenders and into the open court.
SFA had a timeout left, but it was not called. Bain put his head down and took off for the opposite end, with Jack White giving desperate chase for Duke.
The shot itself was routine—“like a layup drill,” Bain said—but the internal clock was sublime. Many players would have panicked and pulled up for a long shot instead of risking running out of time. Bain, evoking the final-second calm of Duke star Christian Laettner 27 years ago against Kentucky, took his time and got it right.
And in the end, fans were treated to another moment that only a sport with 353 teams can produce. Football never sees the No. 264 team, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings before Tuesday's game, beat the AP No. 1 team. It never sees the most powerful program, riding a 150-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents, take an L out of nowhere.
If Western Carolina had beaten Alabama on the gridiron Saturday, it would have approximated this result. Instead, the score of that game was 66-3.
But in basketball, the impossible can happen.
And the hero just might have an amazing personal story to tell, as he fights off tears after scoring a winning basket nobody would dare even script.