When he splashed his final three-pointer of the evening, a final punctuation on No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin’s 70-56 win against No. 3 seed West Virginia, the crowd at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn rose to give Thomas Walkup, the Lumberjacks senior 6-foot-4 guard/forward, a raucous standing ovation.
The Southland Conference Player of the Year for two straight years, he announced himself on the national stage with a scintillating 33-point, nine-rebound and four-assist performance that propelled his team into Sunday’s matchup against the winner of Notre Dame vs. Michigan.
The Lumberjacks did to West Virginia what the Mountaineers are accustomed to doing to others, pressuring them out of the gym. But with Walkup leading the charge, Stephen F. Austin looked like the intimidating squad that excelled in the facets of the game normally thought to be the domain of a Bob Huggins coached squad: creating turnovers with in-your-face pressure, accumulating buckets in the transition game, muscling in for offensive rebounds, and making a living at the free-throw line.
SFA scored 29 points off of 22 takeaways and they got to the free-throw line 39 times. They looked extremely comfortable handling West Virginia’s normally ferocious pressure. And Thomas Walkup was simply the best player on the Barclays court all day.
His performance is a reminder of what makes college basketball so special at this time of year, when smaller senior laden squads slay Goliaths with regularity. Walkup tore his ACL twice in high school, and after redshirting during his first year in college, averaged a mere 4.4 points per game as a freshman. His numbers jumped dramatically as a sophomore, and has quietly been one of the best kept secrets in college ball both this year and last.
The Lumberjacks are currently enjoying the nation’s longest winning streak at 21 games. In a game of in-your-jock defense, Walkup drove the lane with no fear, getting to the charity stripe 20 times. He knocked down 19 of those free throw attempts.
For people that are shocked by West Virginia’s loss, they shouldn’t be. Stephen F. Austin was making its third straight NCAA appearance under coach Brad Underwood.
And if Walkup replicates his performance on Sunday while the Lumberjacks match tonight’s defensive pressure, they could be hanging around this thing much longer than most anticipated.