SAN DIEGO -- The most compelling element of the NCAA tournament -- the thing that other sports, amateur or professional, can’t duplicate with the same authenticity -- is its capacity to create stars.
In the final five minutes of the most thrilling game of the day, Desmond Haymon was just another dude from a small program in Texas. And then he recorded a four-point play -- a 3-pointer with five seconds to play in regulation, a foul by VCU freshman JeQuan Lewis and the subsequent free throw -- during Stephen F. Austin’s 77-75 overtime victory against VCU on Friday.
“Well, miracles truly do happen,” Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood said after the game.
By the time Haymon returned to his team’s locker room after the game, national radio outlets were calling and journalists were huddling nearby. Sportswriters were scrambling for media guides and rosters. Spectators, on both sides, were trying to shut their mouths. Coaches, on both sides, were wrestling with their emotions.
If we’re honest about it, how many of us knew that Stephen F. Austin sits in Nacogdoches, Texas? Wherever that is. How many Southland Conference games have we seen this season? Why are they even called the Lumberjacks?
The seemingly meaningless had become meaningful as a result of Haymon’s heroics.
Just. Like. That. Stephen F. Austin had exploded.
But Haymon had no time for the budding frenzy he’d induced. A postgame interview attended by a horde of reporters -- only a handful participated in Stephen F. Austin’s pregame presser on Thursday -- awaited the Pickens, Miss., (population 1,128) native, who tried to explain everything that unfolded in the final seconds of regulation.
The shot. The foul on Lewis. The free throw.
The cold blood.
“Thomas [Walkup] was driving down the court and made a great move, and the defense came in and I called his name and [I was] shot-ready, and with God’s grace, the shot went up and I shot it with confidence,” Haymon said. “I shot it with confidence. [Lewis] closed on me kind of hard, and I stayed there with my follow-through and he knocked me down.”
That shot threw Viejas Arena into chaos. People who’d purchased tickets to support other teams had suddenly become Stephen F. Austin fans.
And the Lumberjacks, who entered the game riding a 28-game winning streak, were reborn. After they secured a 40-30 lead early in the second half, Shaka Smart freed his Rams, and a 26-5 run turned the game in VCU’s favor.
Haymon, the team’s top scorer all season, didn’t have a great outing. He was 1-for-3 in the first half. He missed most of his shots in the second half, too. But the one that sent the game into overtime, when Stephen F. Austin outscored VCU 10-8 and got its first NCAA tourney win in the program’s history (the Lumberjacks lost to Syracuse in the opening round of the 2009 NCAA tournament), changed everything and extended Stephen F. Austin’s West Coast trip.
And now, the Lumberjacks will advance to the next round on Sunday.
Haymon helped the Lumberjacks do that. And his family was in town to see it.
His father, Joe Haymon, flew for the first time just to see his son play in the NCAA tournament. His mother, Debra Haymon, hadn’t been on a plane in 20 years.
But they came, and they brought his sister, too.
Only one, though.
During his freshman season, Haymon’s other sister, Portia, died after a bout with cancer. It was a devastating blow for the young man, who also broke his wrist that same year. But he relied on his faith and his team as he ultimately became a veteran on a team that broke a few brackets Friday but also made many smile.
“Coach told us to dream big, and that’s been our motto,” said Lumberjacks forward Jacob Parker, who scored a game-high 22 points.
If Haymon had missed that shot at the end of regulation, however, he’d just be another guy for a mid-major program. The NCAA tourney loves its heroes but dismisses its losers without much sympathy. Players are forgotten. Quickly. The freight train that leads to the Final Four is too robust to stop and reflect.
This game can be superficial like that.
But we know Haymon now. He matters. His team matters.
One shot made us care about the young man from a small town in Mississippi.
That’s the power of the Big Dance.