The Lumberjacks may have been eliminated Sunday night in Brooklyn by a stingy Notre Dame squad, but Stephen F. Austin gave fans across the country a glimpse of the truth in the form of senior guard/forward Thomas Walkup.
The 6-foot-4 bearded baller danced his way into fans' hearts this year, charming spectators with a Southland Conference Tournament title and a shocking 70-56 upset over third-seeded West Virginia. Walkup led the team with 33 points in the victory over the Mountaineers and recorded nine rebounds, four assists, four steals and one block in his 37 minutes played.
The Lumberjacks' suffocating defense and enthusiastic offense stunned West Virginia, who only managed to shoot 30.8 percent in the game, including a dismal 18.8 percent (3-16) from beyond the arc. The 'Jacks were just the 20th 14-seed to ever defeat a No. 3 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and their 14-point win was the largest margin of victory for a 14 seed over a three seed in history. Also, prior to Sunday’s loss to the Fighting Irish, they held the nation’s longest winning streak at 21 games.
But the legend of Thomas Walkup began long before the Lumberjacks set foot in the Barclays Center.
Walkup redshirted his freshman year but became the ever-important sixth man for the 'Jacks as a sophomore. He helped them win school-best 27 games, their third-ever Southland Conference title and a trip to the NIT while recording 4.4 points and 3.6 rebounds on the season.
His role on the team developed more in his redshirt sophomore year, in which Walkup started all 35 games, scored a total of 460 points and played 994 minutes. He helped the squad set a school and conference single-season record with 32 wins. The Lumberjacks also extended their home winning streaking to 32 that year, while leading the nation with 14 overall road wins, 12 consecutive. They lost to UCLA in the third round of the tournament but entered the bout as the nation leader with a 29-game winning streak.
Stephen F. Austin head coach Brad Underwood attributes Walkup’s continued improvement to all the hard work he put in at the gym.
“Well, two points a game as a freshman and really a position-less player because he physically didn't have the strength that he has now,” said Underwood after SFA’s loss Sunday. “The one thing that we do is we lift weights — it's a big part of our program and the growth of our program. That has allowed Tom to be multidimensional and versatile. Tom guards literally four or five different spots on the court.”
Last year, Walkup earned an AP All-America Honorable Mention, was a Lou Henson All-American and Southland Conference Player of the Year. He led SFA in scoring (15.6 ppg), rebounding (6.5 rpg) and field goal percentage (56.7 percent). The 'Jacks were bounced in the second round by yet another Pac-12 team, the Utah Utes.
In his last NCAA appearance, Walkup gave the game everything he had, finishing with 21 points, five rebounds and five assists in the final 27 minutes of his college basketball career.
“Thomas Walkup proved he's as good as any player in this tournament as there is in the country, and that young man's done it with hard work,” exclaimed Underwood.
But the question remains: Will all of Walkup’s hard work pay off and earn him a spot on a team at the next level?
“His best position at the next level is the point,” explained Underwood. “But his versatility … has come through the weight room. No way do I want to cheapen the effort that he has put in on the court, and he was a young man that couldn't shoot, didn't make threes, and … he was a 50 percent free-throw shooter as a freshman. Well, 19 of 20 on Friday night and 7 of 7 today, and the work that that young man has put in, he's made himself one of the elite players in college basketball. And that's a tribute all to his work ethic.
"And I don't even talk about the mental because that young man watches more film and prepares better than any player I've ever been around.”
Meanwhile, the Lumberjacks will move on without their emotional head coach, who is headed to Oklahoma State, and the gritty guard, but the legend of Thomas Walkup will remain at the program’s heart.
“He's a better kid than he is a player, and that's what I'll miss,” lamented Underwood. “He's funny. He's smart. This is what this is about. He's everything that this is about. It's relationships, it's people, it's a student-athlete with two degrees. It's a student-athlete who made himself great. How do you not fall in love with a kid like that?
"And we use the term love a lot in our program. He's got a wonderful family. There's not enough adjectives to say what I feel about that young man. He's going to go make it in whatever endeavor he chooses beyond basketball, with basketball, whatever. I love that kid to death.”
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.