Originally posted on Pro Sports Daily  |  Last updated 3/22/14
Coaches could hardly watch the tape, it turned their stomachs. The seeds for Stephen F. Austin’s improbable run to the third-round of the NCAA tournament were planted in a hotel room near Johnson City, Tenn., on Nov. 23. After the Lumberjacks lost to East Tennessee State, 66-58, first-year coach Brad Underwood and assistants were so steamed that they forced themselves to watch – immediately watch – tape of the horrid defensive effort that night at the hotel. How was that experience? “We about threw up all over each other,” assistant Mike Boynton Jr. told USA TODAY Sports a few weeks ago. Stephen F. Austin has not lost since. The 12th-seeded Lumberjacks converted a four-point play to push Friday’s second-round NCAA tournament game against fifth-seeded VCU into overtime, and Stephen F. Austin ultimately won, 77-75. They are among the most compelling stories of this NCAA tournament not only because they are a double-digit seed playing into the tournament’s third round. They also are a colorful, free-spirited group of players – think Florida Gulf Coast from last season – who have captivated the locals in Nacogdoches, Texas, which is about a three-hour drive southeast of Dallas. Think basketball matters there? A police officer gave a USA TODAY Sports reporter a police escort through traffic to the coaches’ offices during a recent visit. “This is a special place,” Underwood said. “It can be a sleeping giant.” Underwood knew the potential of this team after it suffered a 10-point defeat at Texas on Nov. 15. What the Lumberjacks lack in size, they make up for in defensive tenacity. They’ve ranked second nationally in turnover percentage, but they don’t disrupt offenses with a full-court press. Instead, they play suffocating half-court defense, trying to stick to the men they cover like a second skin. Players such as Desmond Haymon, the best leader Underwood has ever been around, and Jacob Parker, probably the team’s best overall player, highlight a group that can appear almost emotionless on the court at times. But in the locker room they are as loose as possible. They have three rap songs. And they conduct a nonsensical shooting routine every road game that players love. The origin? Last year in the NIT, then-senior guard Hal Bateman couldn’t shoot a lick but was making a lot of threes during shoot around. After he made each three, he would say the same thing, “Shooter gym, cuh!” So Parker and Thomas Walkup have done the same routine every road game and they videotape it. They’ll bounce the ball between their legs, shoot a three and they’ll say, “Shooter gym, cuh!” Then some coaches will even say, “Shooter gym, cuh?”
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