The Court Report: The triumphs, tragedies and untold stories behind SFA's amazing upset of top-ranked Duke
Beating the Blue Devils was incredible on its own, but there's so much more to Stephen F. Austin's story
The magnitude of Stephen F. Austin's 85-83 overtime victory at No. 1 Duke on Tuesday was so grand, I made an executive decision to blow up all previous Court Report designs and instead do a special all-things-Devils-and-Lumberjacks for Thanksgiving Day.
We should all be thankful for that game and college basketball, because no other major American sport can provide an outcome and upset so outrageous: two teams separated by more than 250 spots in the metrics, with a small school from the Southland Conference pulling off the unthinkable against the sport's most imperial of all its imperial powers.
It was a near-37-year gap between mid-majors winning at Cameron Indoor Stadium (Wagner did it last in 1983). We might have to wait at least another two decades before we see it again, so let's commemorate one of the more amazing and unpredictable stories and outcomes we've seen in sports in 2019.
The question most of us asked after Lumberjack senior forward Nathan Bain was: how does this happen? How does undefeated Duke lose to a team that finished with the fourth-worst record in the Southland last season?
Simple as it is, SFA coach Kyle Keller told me a lot of it was effort. He had six days to stew and brew on what his team could do to eradicate the unusually poor endeavor it put on display in a 12-point loss against Rutgers on Nov. 20. Stephen F. Austin's first L was also its first road game. It answered the bell -- and then was fortunate to run into a Duke team that wasn't jacked to play a home game so close to Thanksgiving against a bunch of guys they were entirely unfamiliar with.
"Coach K, Coach Cal, they're coaching 18-year-old kids who aren't used to playing older guys," Keller said Wednesday. "They just came off playing at the Garden in the biggest stage in New York. The freight elevators, the media, the stars in the stands, and they're about to be away from home on Thanksgiving for the first time in their lives."
Even though it has nine new players on this season's roster, Stephen F. Austin is one of the most experienced teams in the nation. Duke of course is one of the youngest. Keller said his players were relaxed, loose. This is almost never the case, but Tuesday night had that house-money feel, Keller said, even though some of his players were battling illnesses this week.
It could be an eon before we again see a mid-major team defeat a No. 1-ranked school on the road by making two 3-pointers or fewer, but that's what SFA did. Two! And it pounded and pushed for 64 of its 85 points in the paint. Stephen F. Austin came into the game as the second-best turnover defense in the country (31.4%) and bested itself, forcing Duke star Tre Jones into eight giveaways and Duke into 22 overall.
"He has to be the most conditioned athlete in college basketball because he does so much for their team," Keller said of Jones.
And then there's the game-ender. The scrum, the ball finding its way into the hands of Gavin Kensmil, who flicked it to Bain, who proceeded to pull off one of the great hold-your-breath buzzer-beaters in the sport's history. Bain told me his instinct to finish the way he did was all mental.
"Honestly, pulling up hadn't even crossed my mind," he said. "When I saw my teammate dive on the floor and outlet the ball, and when I saw three seconds, I knew I could get there."
Bain said he blacked out after making the shot.
"It felt like it was forever because I thought I was just standing there, staring, because I didn't even see the ball go through the hole," Bain said. "I hoped that it went in, but then I saw all my teammates running at me and thought, I think we won the game. Then we started celebrating and it was like, OK, we actually won the game."
And no timeout called? No. The Lumberjacks had one available -- but not only did Keller not want to, he couldn't even see the play as it untangled because his players were in his view. Keller's big on taking smart shots closer to the rim when up against an expiring shot or game clock. He talked to his team in the locker room before the Duke game about not hoisting up rushed shots. It's a mantra he learned from his former boss, Eddie Sutton.
"It felt like it was forever because I thought I was jut standing there, staring, because I didn't even see the ball go through the hole."Stephen F. Austin senior forward Nathan Bain
Keller also told me not calling the timeout was due to serving under Leonard Hamilton, Bill Self and Billy Kennedy in his previous stops. Those coaches will almost always take the runout as opposed to diagramming a play and halting a transition situation.
Keller wrote one word on the greaseboard -- TRUST -- and then actually let his seniors dictate and decide what kind of offense they were going to run once the game got to overtime.
"I don't think I'll ever let them run offense again," Keller deadpanned after SFA scored just two points in the first 4:59 of overtime.
Scheduling just got tougher
Getting this game on the schedule wasn't easy. Keller and his staff tried to get Duke to pick the Lumberjacks in recent years only to be told no. Keller even wrote a letter to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski two years ago after he initially considered playing SFA, but passed. After the victory, the first thing Keller did when interviewed on television was thank Krzyzewski for scheduling his team before praising the Hall of Fame coach.
"Looking down at that other sideline and seeing more than 1,000 wins, that dude knows a lot more ball than I do," Keller said of Krzyzewski. "He's going to win the clipboard battle." .
Ironically enough, this kind of outcome will likely make it tougher to schedule top teams.
Who wants to invite these guys over, right?
"It'll make our scheduling in the future a little bit harder," Keller said.
For Keller, the win was on the level of another epic he was a part of as an assistant for Texas A&M for its record-setting 10-point comeback in the final 30 seconds against Northern Iowa in the second round of the 2016 NCAAs. And when Stephen F. Austin's plane landed in Tyler, Texas, around 4 a.m. Wednesday morning -- with fans and media up at that ungodly hour to greet them -- it had to feel like a March welcome.
Keller never slept Tuesday night into Wednesday morning -- or at any point on Wednesday. With his 10-year-old son leaning against him, asleep, Keller traded thoughts with his athletic director on the plane ride back. He took the momentum of the Duke win and made the two-hour car ride to Houston to recruit Wednesday evening. While he was tending to interviews during the day, Stephen F. Austin's players celebrated the most shocking upset of the year in sports by ... feeding the needy in their hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas.
On Thursday, Keller will have the entire team to his house for Thanksgiving.
With a runaway layup, a life is changed
Duke paid Stephen F. Austin $85,000 to play at Cameron Indoor Stadium. It paid $85,000 to lose.
But that sum pales in comparison to the $120,000 (and counting) the public's donated to Nate Bain's GoFundMe following his layup to vanquish the Blue Devils. Bain grew up in Freeport, Grand Bahama, where all of his family still lives. Bain's home, church and school were destroyed last summer by Hurricane Dorian.
With approval from SFA's compliance department, Bain set up a GoFundMe in September to help his loved ones and community. But it never went far. Bain grew frustrated and ultimately disappointed by how little momentum his cause gathered. Bain told me athletic administrators in recent weeks were in ongoing (but slow) discussions to shut down the GoFundMe, but never got around to it.
And then Bain found the ball in his hands, with a little more than three seconds left before his life changed forever.
Bain's GoFundMe was at $2,008 before Tuesday's game. Once SFA won, the power of social media took hold in an infectiously uplifting way. Bain's GoFundMe went from two grand to $6,785 less than two hours after beating Duke.
It was at $11,561 by 7:53 a.m. Wednesday.
Nearly five hours later: $48,722.
By 7:34 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, donations were up to $90,003 and the donation page was the second biggest active collector in GoFundMe's system. The cause cracked six figures shortly before midnight Wednesday.
Bain, who had a former classmate die in Hurricane Dorian, is still in shock.
"I've been trying to put it into words," Bain told me. "It's almost impossible for me to really comprehend. All I can keep responding is it's unbelievable and crazy. Looking at the GoFundMe, it was about $2,000 and it was discouraging because you want to give as much as you can and we wanted to give to the Bahamian community."
Bain's father, Norris, who is a pastor at the family church, the former principal of the school (the church and school, which has nearly 750 kids in K-12, are one in the same) and is a coach for the Bahamian national men's basketball team, called Keller in tears on Wednesday morning over the generosity of thousands of strangers.
Bain said his family won't be taking any of the money. They had proper insurance for their house and have been working their way back to regularity. Donations will go toward rebuilding facilities and infrastructure for the church and school in addition to providing thousands of people in need around Freeport.
"It's going to help so many kids, families to get back on their feet," he said. "God working through basketball. This money is for the church and for the school and the families on that island to get them back on their feet and get their lives some normalcy."
It's an amazing turn of events for a player from the same area as Buddy Hield and someone who at one point was viewed as a Hield's successor. Kyle Lindstedt was Bain's high school coach at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas and has known Bain since he was 16, when he left the Bahamas to pursue basketball in the United States.
"They're a fantastic family, an unbelievable family," said Lindstedt, now an assistant at Minnesota. "A high-motor athlete, rebounder, slasher, doesn't have a lot of that offensive appeal like Buddy. But for him to be in the limelight, that is what he deserves. He grinds away, plays hard, has been a part of so many good teams. The teams he beat in high school? He's played against those Duke-type guys before."
Bain is 24 now, the fatherly figure on the team. (Kind of fitting: he was born March 16, 1995: the first day of that year's NCAA Tournament.) He's had five surgeries (knee, back, foot, hand) since getting to college, the most recent one on his right knee, a second procedure on his meniscus. He's not at 100% now and will never play at 100% again. His experience has led him to want to become a physical therapist with a specialization in sports medicine.
"It's bigger than me," he said. "These surgeries changed my mindset on what needs to be accomplished."
And now Bain wants his teammates to experience the NCAA Tournament, something he's already been a part of twice, including SFA's enormous No. 14-over-a-No. 3 upset of West Virginia in 2016, when he was a freshman.
There is no more appropriate and heartening story in sports on this Thanksgiving than Nate Bain and what he represents. By beating Duke, he will help the lives of thousands -- and his humility amid all of this is estimable.
Tragedy, death, uncertainty surrounds SFA's program
The calamity around Bain's life is but one piece of what's been an emotional, dreadful, tragic and trying time for the Stephen F. Austin program in recent months. SFA fans in attendance were sobbing after the win; cameras caught Keller embracing his sister, cheeks drenched in tears. It's been an emotional and unstable journey in 2019. When you step back and examine everything it feels a bit cosmic, how this win came into existence.
"We've had an awful time around here, to be honest with you," Keller told me.
Keller was gone for four weeks in the summer because of the declining health and subsequent death of his mother, Barbara, who was a constant presence around the program. She suffered a brain aneurysm in 2016 and never fully recovered. There were strokes and seizures in the weeks leading up to her death and her health worsened "pretty rapidly." She died within two weeks after being admitted to ICU.
"It was awful," Keller said. "I've probably stuffed a lot of my emotions, really isolated myself from a lot of my friends, and with all these new guys -- it hasn't been easy."
Assistant coach Wade Mason has been battling liver cancer for months. Mason has done six rounds of chemotherapy and has a significant CT scan scheduled for early December. He'll undergo surgery to have part of his liver removed and be forced to leave the team for weeks.
"But he was so sharp on the bench last night," Keller said. "His energy, he's been amazing. He's had to be gone so much, and another assistant of ours left in September to take another job. (Assistant) Jeremy Cox has been a rock while all of us were gone. I'm grateful to Jeremy, and Wade's been such an inspiration to all of us. The toughness he's displayed. He had prostate cancer first, it came back, and then it was liver."
The program hasn't slowed. It's cresting toward top-tier status in the Southland and has pressed on and somehow even thrived in the face of so much adversity and tragedy. Odds-defying.
- College hoops has been on a run in recent seasons with huge underdogs winning straight-up. In 2015, Western Illinois won 69-67 at Wisconsin despite being a 25.5-point dog; in 2017, Wofford won 79-75 at UNC as a 25-point dog; and then earlier this month, Evansville as a 25-point dog won 67-64 at top-ranked Kentucky.
- SFA's win was worth 42 spots in KenPom's rankings. The Jacks went from No. 264 to No. 222.
- Duke's previous 150 nonconference home wins all ended in regulation.
- Duke is 292-9 in nonconference home tilts under Coach K, a farcical .970 win percentage.
- Butler now owns the nation's longest win streak at home against noncon opponents (55).
- ACC Network analyst Dan Bonner has been on the call id two of the most memorable buzzer beaters of the past 15 years. He was in Cameron on Tuesday and also supplied the "YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS WITH THAT SHOT" when Ali Farokhmanesh turned his last name into a verb when No. 9 Northern Iowa upset No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the 2010 tournament.
- Stephen F. Austin is Texas' winningest Division I program of the 2010s. The Lumberjacks are 219-81 this decade.
- Duke starters Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore and Vernon Carey Jr. weren't even born when Duke last lost at home in noncon play to St. John's on Feb. 26, 2000. I'll also remind readers that that the Red Storm was a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs and featured Erick Barkley and Bootsy Thornton. Slightly different from Stevie Friggin' Austin.
- And credit to Mark Cooper of The Score for this great nugget: the night Wagner beat Duke in '83, SFA was a Division II program and won a five-point game at Midwestern State that same Thursday night almost 37 years ago.
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