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Beating Duke was a giant jolt in Stephen F. Austin’s quest back to the top

A year after missing the Southland Tournament, the Jacks now have a big-time launching pad back to national prominence.

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NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

As Nathan Bain calmly finished the layup heard ‘round the college basketball world Tuesday night, he sent the Stephen F. Austin bench — and much of the viewing public — into pure jubilation. It was a stunning upset in a season that hasn’t lacked for that type of thing, and it was also a far cry from where Bain and the Lumberjacks were just eight months ago.

SFA found itself in an unfamiliar spot last March.

TThe Jacks were fighting for their postseason life, which in and of itself wouldn’t be uncommon for a team in a one-bid league, but they were doing so before the lights had even been turned on at the Southland Tournament. That wasn’t the order of things in Nacogdoches, at least not since Danny Kaspar had sauntered into town in the early 2000s and laid the groundwork for what would eventually give the nation Brad Underwood, Thomas Walkup, Thomas Walkup’s beard and March upsets.

A season marred by injuries, dismissals and a struggling offense had the preseason league favorite riding a three-game losing streak and needing a win against rival Sam Houston State on the final day of the regular season to grab a spot in the league tournament.

That version of the Battle of the Piney Woods didn’t go the Jacks way. A 16-3 second half Bearkats’ blitz wiped out SFA’s season, sinking the Jacks to ninth in the league standings at 7-11 and marking the first time since 2005 they wouldn’t play in the league tournament. Bearkats’ coach Jason Hooten wasn’t shy about it earlier in the year: SFA had dominated his team over the years. As much sentimental juice as that win may have had for SHSU, it hit just as hard for the league power for whom not cutting down the nets in Katy would be considered a disappointment, let alone not being let in the building.

“Not making it to Katy is a bitter pill to swallow,” SFA third-year coach Kyle Keller said. “It’s painful not to represent this school in Katy.”

But just a few weeks into a new season, SFA dished out a bitter pill of its own in ending the Blue Devils’ 150-game non-conference home winning streak.

That was an exciting moment wrapped up in narratives. Off the court, there was an outpouring of support for Bain and spotlight on the effects of Hurricane Dorian on his native Bahamas — plus SFA assistant Wade Mason’s courageous battle with cancer. And on the court, the simple fact that SFA didn’t wilt against the No. 1 team in the country, even in the five extra overtime minutes that usually spear upset bids.

But beyond a magical night, what does the historic win mean for SFA as it tries to get back to the top of the Southland?

It’s hard not to look at it in the context of last year’s underwhelming campaign. The program had firmly established itself as a mid-major power, making NCAA Tournaments under three different head coaches — including Keller in 2018 — and racking up gaudy conference win totals since Kaspar got things up and running in 2003. So was a season filled with a ton of promise tumbling into disappointment a burp of exhaust in an otherwise whirring machine, or a sign that things were cracking?

That was a burning question not just for the program, but the Southland as well.

This past offseason started in the red, with star forward T.J. Holyfield, who missed all of 2018-19 with injury, transferring to Texas Tech. The Jacks also lost a pair of starters, leading scorer Shannon Bogues and third-leading scorer Davonte Fitzgerald, to graduation. That led to SFA being tabbed as fourth in the league’s preseason poll, which reflected the talent still on the roster (namely, senior guard Kevon Harris) but was still an odd sight not seeing the Jacks on top of a league they had made their playground.

Now armed with arguably the program’s best win ever, SFA will try to use the win as a launching pad back into sustained national relevance. They’ll also try to avoid the immediate fate that awaited Evansville after it got its own stunning win over the No. 1 team in the country. The Aces followed up their win in Rupp Arena with three straight losses, and had to scrape out a triple-overtime win over Morgan State to get back in the win column.

For its part, SFA travels to Arkansas State on Saturday where it’ll try for an impossible encore. They’ll rely on their disruptive defense yet again, which is currently forcing the second-highest turnover rate in the country, and flummoxed future pro Tre Jones into eight turnovers on Tuesday night. They’ll also rely on Harris, who has continued to be a star (20.5 PPG, 26 points against Duke) that should be on the NBA radar. In terms of newcomers, Iona transfer Gavin Kensmil (12.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG) has stepped in to add some of the frontcourt production the team missed with Holyfield’s injury last year, and JuCo wing Cameron Johnson has jumped right in as a big part of Keller’s offense, just as his junior college coach predicted.

“They’re getting a guy that can score baskets in just about any league around,” [Tyler Junior College head coach Mike] Marquis said. “They’re getting a guy that’s an aggressive offensive player that continues to improve his shooting. They’ll do a great job with him.”

Senior point guard John Comeaux may be the X-factor as he runs the show for a team that struggled mightily with turnovers a year ago. Some that is natural with SFA’s frenetic pace — which has spiked with the 12th-fastest tempo in the country so far this year — and it must have been encouraging to Keller that the Jacks only committed five second half turnovers as the pressure mounted, especially after they turned it over 19 times in a loss at Rutgers the game before.

As the Duke win fades out, SFA continues its quest to regain its spot atop the Southland and the warm, familiar spot they’d occupied on brackets in March. It’s certainly off to a bold start.