The way Nathan Bain’s teammates mobbed him in the paint, you could tell what it meant when the unranked Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks chopped down the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils.
But for Bain, it meant a little more – even with Tuesday night’s winning layup on the road.
The 24-year-old hails from Freeport, Bahamas, and when Hurricane Dorian crashed into the archipelago earlier this year, it robbed the family of almost everything they owned. Bain has been in the states since at least 2012, when he joined Sunrise Christian Academy’s squad in Bel Aire, Kansas, but his family stayed behind.
His father, a minister, watched the Category 5 storm wreck the church where he preached. Photos show the building in a state of chaos and disarray, its studs stripped of drywall and its soggy contents piled up and tossed askew.
When head coach Kyle Keller introduced Bain on Tuesday for his postgame news conference, he laid out the tribulations his graduate student forward had endured.
“‘Cause this kid, he’s from the Bahamas. His family’s lost their house. They have a school with 600 kids. They lost their church. They lost their school. This kid’s only had everything on his body operated on. He means so much to us and this program. He embodies everything,” Keller said.
The 6-foot-6 Bain fought back tears as he conducted the remote interview from the court.
“I’m trying real hard not to get emotional,” he said. “My family lost a whole lot this year – woo, not going to cry on TV. My family lost a whole lot this year, and I’m just playing this game for them – just playing for my SFA family, my family back home in the Bahamas. I just want to make my country proud.”
His teammates, he said, had his back when disaster struck, “and I just want to return the favor.”
And what a way to do it.
With about 10 seconds left in overtime and the score tied at 83, the ever-vociferous Duke faithful, aka the Cameron Crazies, were doing everything in their power to will their undefeated Blue Devils to another W.
Sophomore guard Tre Jones drove from the top of the arc and pushed a bounce pass to Matthew Hurt, who couldn’t get a handle on the ball. The freshman reached, but the Lumberjacks’ Roti Ware and Gavin Kensmil wanted it more, hitting the floor and scrambling for the rock.
Kensmil came up with it and, still on the ground, made a swift outlet pass to Bain, who cut in front of Duke senior captain Jack White and found himself alone near midcourt.
With seconds left, he could’ve called SFA’s final timeout to set up the game-winning play, but instead he hustled down court and laid the ball off the backboard just as it lit up to indicate the clock expiring.
The ball fell through the hoop. Score: 85-83. Mayhem ensued.
Bain had seen the tussle for the rebound, he later recalled, and was confident his teammates would prevail. In his head, he was mentally preparing for a second overtime. Then, Kensmil made that outlet pass.
“I saw my teammate grab it, and I looked up at the clock. We had about 2.6 seconds. I said, ‘I’ve got to get on my horse,’” he said. “I just go as fast as I can to try and lay it up. It’s like a layup drill, and I can feel the dude on my back, so I laid it up and prayed it goes in.”
As he released the ball with less than a second remaining, he thought, “Get it on the rim just to give us a chance.”
After the game, tens of thousands of dollars in donations flowed into a GoFundMe account that the university set up in September for the Bain family’s recovery efforts. Many donors thanked Bain for beating the vaunted Blue Devils. Several contributors gave $23, an ode to Bain’s jersey number.
Hard-fought effort earns kudos from Coach K
Sure, it was an upset, but to be clear, the Lumberjacks aren’t bums. They’ve made the NCAA Tournament in four of the last five years, advancing as a mid-major in 2014 and 2016. They were 5-1 heading into Tuesday night’s game.
Yet, they are no Duke.
The five-time NCAA champions are regulars in the Final Four, having made it to the semifinals of the Big Dance on 16 occasions. NBA rosters are filthy with former Blue Devils. Bain called Durham, North Carolina, a basketball mecca in his postgame interview.
Duke is particularly nasty at home against nonconference opponents. Before Tuesday’s L, they’d won 150 straight – their last loss to a non-Atlantic Coast Conference team at Cameron Indoor Stadium coming when St. John’s Red Storm beat them with a late basket in 2000.
While Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski conceded during his postgame news conference that his elite squad, 28-point favorites, may not have been prepared for the Lumberjacks – and may have even entered the game cocky – he was taking nothing away from SFA’s scrappy outing, he said.
The Lumberjacks were “playing their butts off,” the legendary hoops skipper said. They played hard in the paint, forced 22 turnovers – 13 of them steals – and dished out 29 fouls in a physical performance. With seconds left, four Lumberjacks, including Bain and Kensmil, were sitting on four fouls, each of them one shy of ending the night.
“We didn’t respond at timeouts or halftime to a different level of emotion,” Coach K said. “If we would’ve won, we would not be deserving of winning. That’s the way I look at it.”
Coach Keller was magnanimous in victory, saying his team overcame the flu bug and a week of “pretty terrible” practices – not to mention last week’s road loss to Rutgers – before traveling from Nacogdoches, Texas, to Durham to become giant slayers.
“He doesn’t have to play us,” Keller said of Coach K. “We’re just a small, little school in East Texas, and we just appreciate him giving us this opportunity.”
Through it all, Keller never lost sight of what was truly important, he said. At one point during the game, he looked over at one of his assistants and said, “Are you having as much fun as I am?”
CNN’s Jill Martin contributed to this report.