SAN DIEGO, Calif. — It’s known across the sport of basketball as the cardinal sin: You don’t foul a shooter when your team is leading by four points at the end of a close game, especially on a three-point attempt.
Less than six seconds were on the clock when Stephen F. Austin’s Thomas Walkup kicked the ball out to Desmond Haymon on the left wing. The Lumberjacks trailed VCU by four points in the NCAA tournament’s second round matchup, and faced their first defeat in 29 games.
And then the improbable happened.
Rams freshman JeQuan Lewis, who had just poured in his 13th point of the game from the free throw line moments earlier, sprinted out to the wing to try and disrupt Haymon’s shot. It wasn’t much, but Lewis initiated incidental contact that would force overtime and, consequently, help end VCU’s 2013-14 season earlier than most expected.
The whistle blew and the crowd came to life as Haymon’s shot sank. SFA had overcome a double-digit second-half deficit and erased a six-point VCU lead in the game’s final minute.
If only Lewis had let Haymon have a clean look.
Some will say it’s a freshman mistake — an error any upperclassman would know not to commit. Others will point to the fact that Lewis hardly touched Haymon and will complain that the refs helped determine the outcome of VCU’s season.
But the fact remains that neither Lewis nor the refs are to blame. Perhaps Lewis should have known better than to contest Haymon’s attempt, but the Rams should not have been in that position in the first place.
VCU’s downfall actually began in the first half of Friday’s contest, when head coach Shaka Smart’s team came out flat against the twelfth-seeded Lumberjacks from Nacogdoches, Texas. The Rams generated countless scoring opportunities inside the paint during the game’s opening minutes, but failed to convert on several occasions.
As a team, VCU shot just 40 percent from the field in the game’s first 20 minutes. But it was the Rams’ half-court defense that helped put them in a six-point halftime hole.
Freshman Doug Brooks provided the Rams with a spark off the bench, knocking down two three pointers when senior Rob Brandenberg was forced to sit with two fouls. However, Brooks struggled to stick close to his man on the defensive side of the ball, and allowed SFA to generate at least three open layups off of simple back-door cuts.
Smart would remove Brooks from the game, realizing the freshman’s perimeter shooting failed to outweigh his defensive liability, but not before VCU fell down several points.
Finally, a 22-3 second-half run helped VCU erase its six-point halftime deficit, and the Rams established an 11-point lead with just more than six minutes to go in the game.
Smart’s team was making shots and forcing turnovers, playing the way they had much of the year en route to a fourth consecutive 26-win season.
And then another drought kicked in.
VCU led 60-50 when junior Treveon Graham knocked down a pair of free throws at the 3:38 mark just before the Rams committed a pair of turnovers, and allowed SFA baskets on three straight possessions.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Burgess nailed a clutch three pointer to give Smart’s team a six-point advantage with less than a minute to play, but VCU missed four of six free throws down the stretch and failed to convert several key offensive possessions.
After the game, Burgess told reporters he thought his late three sealed the win at the time.
“Honestly, I thought we had it,” Burgess said. “We had them on the ropes, but they came back. They made tough shots and important shots to win the game.”
Ironically, it was Lewis who had a wide-open look at a potentially game-winning three pointer in the final seconds of overtime. SFA had a defensive lapse, and Lewis stood alone on the right wing as he caught the ball with five seconds left on the clock. But the ball rimmed out, and the Rams fell 77-75 to a Lumberjacks team that owns the nation’s second-longest winning streak.
As a team, VCU finished the game shooting 46 percent from the field, 38 percent from three and 64 percent from the free throw line. The Rams helped force 17 SFA turnovers on the game, but squandered too many opportunities early in the game to distance themselves from a relentless Lumberjacks team.