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Postseason awards: Stephen F. Austin’s win at Duke was our Game of the Year

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The game itself was great. What came after made it legendary.

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

Nov. 26, 2019: Stephen F. Austin 85, Duke 83 (OT)

There is rarely a clear-cut winner for the best game of the year. Often, the candidates range from NCAA Tournament upsets to buy-game shockers to triple-overtime thrillers. Though we had no March Madness this year, it was also a season with more than its share of great games.

Stephen F. Austin’s 85-83 overtime win over Duke was just a little bit more impressive than the other great ones, not only because of its improbable nature — KenPom gave Duke a 99.8 percent chance of winning — but because of what happened after.

SFA forward Nathan Bain had established a GoFundMe to raise money for his family, which lost everything when Hurricane Dorian devastated their home in the Bahamas. Coming into the game, he had raised nearly $2,000. Two days after his game-winning layup at Cameron Indoor, he had raised $117,000. The final tally was $151,740.

Bain said of his family’s reaction:

“They’ve been in disbelief about how much they know they’ll be able to help other people,” Bain said of his family who will be receiving the donations. “It’s bigger than basketball, the shot didn’t really matter, it’s what happened afterward.”

In that way, Bain may have hit the most important shot of the 2019-20 college basketball season.

As mind-blowing as the impact of Bain’s game-winner is, how it even got to that point is just as wild.

Duke’s buy game against Stephen F. Austin on the night of Nov. 26, 2019 was on precisely nobody’s radar (at least outside of the Durham and Nacogdoches communities). That’s no knock on SFA — the Lumberjacks were supposed to be a formidable team in the Southland, capable of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. But this was Duke. A blueblood. In Cameron Indoor. Come on. There were bigger games on that night.

For one thing, it was the second night of the Maui Invitational, the sport’s premiere Thanksgiving Week tournament. Kansas was supposed to get a test from BYU, a supposed-to-be-pretty-good Dayton team would face Virginia Tech — its second Power 5 team in as many days, and Wisconsin was about to lose its second straight game to a mid-major.

The 9 p.m. tip at least meant the game wouldn’t be lost among the rash of 7:00 games that night. If anything crazy were to happen, people might take notice before it was too late.

At first, it didn’t seem like there’d be anything worth paying attention to. The teams traded baskets in the opening couple minutes before Duke methodically built an eight-point lead midway through the first half. After a Kevon Harris layup made it 23-17, the Blue Devils scored eight in a row to go up 14. Vernon Carey had 10 of Duke’s 31 points.

Teams generally don’t come back form double-digit deficits at Cameron Indoor. And I mean ACC teams. Louisville, North Carolina (especially this year), and the like.

The Lumberjacks? From the Southland? No shot.

Enter Harris. He went on a personal 6-0 run to stabilize SFA, then scored eight more down the stretch in the first half to send the Lumberjacks into the locker room down only five.

SFA hung tough out of the locker room, staying between two and seven points of the Blue Devils for the first 11 minutes of the second half. We officially had A Situation On Our Hands when the clock dipped under nine minutes and Cameron Johnson made a layup to tie the game. 30 seconds later, he made a pair of free throws to put SFA ahead.

As they had all game, the Lumberjacks matched Duke shot for shot over the next few minutes. Duke would tie the game or go ahead and SFA would come right back. The Southland favorites refused to be intimidated or to let any Duke spurt and subsequent freak out from the Cameron Crazies do them in. They were in it to the finish.

Out of the under-four media timeout, Bain hit a jumper to put SFA up by three. A real quick personal note here: I was at Barclays Center the night of this game, covering Richmond and New Mexico for This Here Site. It was around this point that I got out of the subway and began walking toward my apartment. I cycled between the ESPN app for live updates and our Slack channel, trying to see if anyone was available to start writing about an upset. I expected to walk through my front door right at the end of regulation, meaning if we had to get a story up fast, I wasn’t a great candidate to do it.

Did I walk right into traffic a couple times? Yes. Is that something I occasionally do even when there isn’t a monumental upset in the works? No comment.

Regardless, I followed the back-and-forth of the last couple minutes from my phone and was about as engaged as possible for someone without an actual stream in front of his face. I actually got the TV on around the time Harris made his free throw to tie the game with 48 seconds left.

The most memorable moment of that final minute wasn’t a made basket but the defensive stand from the Lumberjacks as Duke tried desperately to win the game in its final possession. With the final 10 seconds feeling like 10 minutes, Duke missed three attempts from less than eight feet out. The first was from Tre Jones, who tried a desperate fadeaway against two SFA defenders in Gavin Kensmil and David Kachelries. That shot barely drew backboard, but the rebound fell right to Vernon Carey. As Carey went up for it, Kensmil got a hand on it and sent the ball flying out of bounds. Kensmil recovered quickly, though, and managed to launch the ball into the air, giving Bain enough time to dive over the baseline and save it as he hurtled into the first row. Cassius Stanley was in the right place at the right time and grabbed it, taking one dribble and getting a desperation shot up against Roti Ware. That clanged off the backboard and rim as time expired, sending the game to overtime.

As eventful as the final possession was, the first 4:50 of overtime was the exact opposite. In fact, nobody scored for the first two minutes. Johnson finally broke through, taking it right at Carey for a layup to put the Lumberjacks ahead. Carey got his revenge a minute later when his put-back tied the score again.

That was it for the scoring until the final seconds.

As wild as the game had been, as touching as the outpouring of support for Bain was, and as improbable as the entire night itself, the last 10 seconds were the most astonishing.

Duke should have had the last shot of overtime with the score tied 83-83. Jones drove and threw an easy bounce pass to Matthew Hurt. Only, Hurt couldn’t handle it. The ball bounced out of Hurt’s hand, then Ware knocked it away. Kensmil hit the floor, smothering the ball and preventing Hurt from getting a piece. He managed to toss it to Bain at the foul line, who split two Duke defenders and broke free with 3.4 seconds to go.

Bain and Stephen F. Austin were no longer playing Duke, they were playing the clock. If Bain could get to the basket before time expired, the Lumberjacks would pull off the upset.

Here’s how it played out, in all its glory:

That’s game of the year material right there.

Also considered: Boise State vs. Utah State; Kansas vs. Dayton