SAN DIEGO — With a flurry of steals and layups, Virginia Commonwealth was firmly in control, seemingly headed to another opening-round victory in the NCAA tournament.
A few mistakes down the stretch gave Stephen F. Austin a chance.
The Lumberjacks ran with it in dramatic fashion, sending the Rams home with a had-it-in-our-hands loss.
JeQuan Lewis fouled Desmond Haymon to set up a four-point play with 3.6 seconds left in regulation and then missed an open 3-pointer at the end of overtime, sending VCU home from the NCAA tournament after a 77-75 loss Friday night.
“I like the way we battled the majority of the second half, but we just didn’t finish the game,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We kind of gave them a glimmer of hope.”
It’s been a wild ride in the NCAA tournament already, a two-day run filled with upsets, buzzer-beaters and millions of crumpled brackets across the country. SFA’s victory marked the fifth overtime game during the round of 64, a tournament record.
SFA didn’t have the biggest upset of the opening two rounds — Mercer probably gets the nod there with its win over Duke — but the Lumberjacks certainly had the most jaw-dropping finish.
Here’s how it went down:
The South Region’s No. 5 seed, VCU (23-10) was comfortably in charge after its swarming defense flustered SFA during a big second-half run.
The scrappy Lumberjacks (32-2) kept hanging around and clawed their way back in the closing seconds.
Two missed free throws by VCU’s Jordan Burgess with 10 seconds left gave 12th-seeded SFA a chance.
The Lumberjacks got the ball to the wing, where Haymon launched a 3-pointer and was fouled by Lewis just before the ball fell through the basket.
“I just tried to get out and contest it,” Lewis said. “(I) jumped to the side a little bit and kind of fell into him. The ref called a foul.”
Haymon still had some work to do, though.
The crowd still buzzing, Smart called a timeout, trying to ice Haymon. The senior didn’t seem to mind, returning to the court to calmly knock down the free throw.
“I was struggling shooting the ball and I knew to get it going, I was going to have to continue to try to find it,” Haymon said. “I guess I found that groove with the last shot.”
The tension still wasn’t over.
Following a missed desperation heave at the end of regulation, Haymon put the ‘Jacks ahead in overtime on a 3-pointer with 2 minutes left.
VCU’s turn at glory came after SFA’s Thomas Walkup made one of two free throws to put the Lumberjacks up two with 14 seconds left. The Rams got a good look on the final possession, working the ball around to Lewis for an open 3-pointer on the wing.
His shot went long, the Lumberjacks grabbed the rebound, then stormed the floor after improbably extending the nation’s second-longest winning streak to 29 games.
Jacob Parker scored 22 points and Haymon had 17 for SFA, which moves into the third round Sunday.
Treveon Graham had 19 points, Burgess scored 14 and Lewis finished with 13 for the disappointed Rams, the third No. 5 seed to lose in this tournament.
“Honestly, I thought we had it,” Burgess said. “We had them on the ropes, but they came back and made some tough shots and important shots to win the game.”
Every year, the NCAA tournament has a feel-good team fans lock onto, like Florida Gulf Coast and Dunk City last year.
SFA certainly had qualifications to be this year’s darling: A fun-loving group of players led by a long-haired shooter teammates call Sunshine, a frenetic style — at least when it comes to half-court defense — and the nation’s second-longest winning streak.
But for the Lumberjacks to become the latest lovable lower seed, they had to get past VCU, a team that had been-there, done-that with the whole underdog thing.
The Rams had a magical run of their own, reaching the 2011 Final Four, and have been consistent winners since, reaching the NCAA tournament four straight years.
Oh, yeah, VCU has that defense, too. It’s called Havoc and it has created more turnovers and steals than any other team in the country the past two seasons.
SFA plays a little D of its own — more of the half-court variety than the Rams — so naturally tipped passes, floor burns and scraps for loose balls filled the arena when they met on the court for the first time.
The Lumberjacks picked their way through the havoc with pinpoint passing on backdoor cuts and the interior, taking a six-point lead into halftime on Parker’s last-second 3-pointer.
VCU made the game more chaotic — Havotic? — with its pressure to start the second half and started working the ball inside, racing through an 11-0 run to go up 52-43.
The Rams stayed in control most of the half, but missed four free throws in the final 32 seconds to give the Lumberjacks a shot at victory.
The Jacks ran with it, earning their spot in NCAA tournament history with one improbable shot.
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