SAN DIEGO --- Before Desmond Haymon left his home in tiny Pickens, Miss., to begin his freshman year at Stephen F. Austin four years ago, the shooting guard's father made him a promise.
"I told him if he ever made it to the NCAA tournament, I would definitely get on a plane for the first time and see him play," 56-year-old Otha Haymon said. "I was a little nervous just thinking about it, but it was something as a dad you just have to do."
Any anxiety Otha experienced during his cross-country flight to San Diego proved a small price to pay Friday night when he witnessed his son sink maybe the most memorable shot of the first two days of the NCAA tournament. The younger Haymon forced overtime with a game-tying four-point play with 3.6 seconds to go in regulation, enabling 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin to upset fifth-seeded VCU 77-75 in overtime to set up a round of 32 matchup with UCLA on Sunday.
Stephen F. Austin trailed VCU by four points with less than 10 seconds to play when guard Thomas Walkup zoomed up court, got the defense to collapse and spotted Haymon in the corner open and calling for the ball. Haymon caught the pass, buried the 3-pointer and drew contact on a late-arriving JeQuan Lewis, enabling him to also sink the free throw that sent the game to overtime.
If such a remarkable shot would have been special under any circumstances for Haymon, it was even more memorable because his father, mother and sister were in the stands cheering for him. They also got to see him sink a deep go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:02 left in overtime, giving Stephen F. Austin a one-point lead that it never relinquished.
"My dad tried to be bold and say he wasn't scared, but it took a lot for him to get on that plane and I appreciate it," Haymon said. "They were hoping I'd play in San Antonio, but they made the sacrifice. My dad even told my mom they could drive out here, but she told him he was crazy."
Haymon's heroics helped Stephen F. Austin (32-2) earn a victory that helped validate a gaudy record built against the nation's 325th-rated schedule. The Lumberjacks haven't lost since a pair of mid-November setbacks against Texas and East Tennessee State, but Atlantic 10 power VCU (26-9) is by far the strongest team they have beaten during their 29-game win streak.
It appeared as though VCU would survive Stephen F. Austin's upset bid when it launched a 24-3 blitz midway through the second half to turn a 10-point deficit into an 11-point lead. The Rams ratcheted up their swarming, full-court pressure defense, forcing seven turnovers from the Lumberjacks in that stretch alone.
As Stephen F. Austin's leading scorer and senior leader, Haymon took it upon himself to calm his teammates down during timeouts late in that VCU spurt.
"He's all about the team and winning," Stephen F. Austin assistant coach Mike Boyton said. "Every timeout he was talking positive. It was always about, 'Guys, we've earned the right to be in this moment. We've earned the opportunity. Let's not let it go.'"
Haymon backed up his words with his outside shooting, rallying Stephen F. Austin from 11 down by scoring 11 of his 17 points in the final 6:35 culminating in the four-point play. Haymon said Lewis "hit my arm and made contact with my body" on the shot and VCU coach Shaka Smart didn't argue the call.
"I couldn't tell," Smart said. "I was kind of blocked, so I don't know. I can't even answer that question."
It was fitting for Stephen F. Austin that Haymon extended its season because he has been the biggest catalyst for the Lumberjacks' success. Not only has he averaged 14.3 points and shot 35.3 percent from behind the arc, he also made sure the rest of his teammates embraced the arrival of first-year coach Brad Underwood and the rest of his staff.
Stephen F. Austin won 27 games and reached the NIT last season, so it would have been easy for the senior-laden Lumberjacks to balk when Underwood revamped the offense. Instead Haymon made sure that didn't happen, helping build a rapport between the new staff and the holdover players.
"Sometimes coming off success, you'll see some resistance, but from the day we got on campus, there has never been any," Boyton said. "He spearheaded that. He was the one guy who texted and called during the summer asking what we could do together. 'Can we go out to dinner? Can we come to your house and watch film?' He was the guy who did all that."
Stories like that are why Otha Haymon would be proud of his son even if Stephen F. Austin lost by 30 on Friday night. That the Lumberjacks won, his son had the most memorable shot of his life and Otha got to conquer his biggest fear only makes it better.
"[Flying] wasn't bad at all," Otha said. "It was nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be. It was pretty cool, to be honest about it."
So it was worth the days of anxiety?
"Every bit of it," Otha said chuckling. "I would do it over and over again if I had to."
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