Nate Bain barreled down the length of the court with seconds left in overtime, made a layup at the buzzer and clinched one of the most improbable upsets in the history of college basketball: Stephen F. Austin beat No. 1 Duke.
Ryan Ivey, the school’s athletic director, was sitting behind the visitors’ bench in Cameron Indoor Stadium and had a perfect view of Bain’s game-winner. But in the delirious aftermath of Stephen F. Austin’s incredible win—a huge underdog from a mid-major conference slaying the top-ranked team in the country—Ivey immediately thought about something else.
“I thought to myself: I’m glad we didn’t take the GoFundMe down when we thought about closing it last week,” he said.
Stephen F. Austin’s exhilarating 85-83 upset wasn’t just notable for the sheer joy that swept the country after Duke’s loss. It was also proof that hating Duke can be a force for good in the world.
The most remarkable part of the Lumberjacks’ celebration was the outpouring of support for the player who made it happen. Bain, a senior from Freeport, Bahamas, watched from afar as his family’s home was one of hundreds of thousands destroyed when Hurricane Dorian made landfall in September. After the catastrophic storm devastated the island nation, compliance officers for Stephen F. Austin’s athletic department organized relief efforts to help the Bain family’s recovery, allowing Lumberjacks fans to donate through the online crowdfunding platform GoFundMe.
The page went live on Sept. 17 and raised about $2,000 from a few dozen people. With the pool of donations going dry, Stephen F. Austin officials discussed closing the GoFundMe short of the $25,000 goal. They decided to keep it open for a few more days.
“With the holidays coming up, we might just let it ride for a little bit and see what happens,” Ivey said.
What happened was another unimaginable twist of fate.
Duke was favored by 27.5 points and hadn’t lost a nonconference home game since 2000, and Stephen F. Austin wasn’t an especially likely candidate to break that streak. This school from the hinterlands of Nacogdoches, Texas, pulled off an upset over West Virginia in the 2016 NCAA tournament as a No. 14 seed, but these Lumberjacks aren’t those Lumberjacks. Stephen F. Austin entered Tuesday’s game ranked No. 264 of 353 teams in college basketball, according to kenpom.com. This team that was about to beat Duke had also just lost to Rutgers.
But the defining characteristic of this Stephen F. Austin team is that it plays at one of the fastest tempos in the country. The Lumberjacks turn sluggish basketball games into frenetic rumpuses in which anything can happen—and sometimes does.
Their style had the desired effect at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They forced Duke’s talented freshmen bound for the NBA to look like, well, freshmen. Lumberjacks forward Gavin Kensmil tied the game with 19 seconds left in regulation and forced overtime, and suddenly Stephen F. Austin was one Duke mistake away from a stunning win.
The game was tied at 83 with just four seconds left in overtime when Duke guard Tre Jones sent a pass whizzing into Matthew Hurt. He couldn’t handle it. Instead the ball squirted out to Kensmil, who passed it ahead to Bain. There was nothing between him and the basket—and the game-winning layup as time expired.
“I’m trying real hard not to get emotional,” Bain said afterward. “My family lost a whole lot this year.”
But it turned out that Bain was about to experience something even more wonderful than beating Duke on the road with a buzzer-beater.
When the upset went viral online, so did Bain’s story and his fundraiser. The donations to the GoFundMe that Stephen F. Austin briefly considered taking offline soon came pouring in at such a furious rate that school officials could barely keep up. The last time that Ivey had checked at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, they had raised around $16,000, and he wasn’t sure what they would do if they reached their $25,000 target.
By 10 a.m., there was more than $25,000 from roughly 900 donors, and the goal was now $50,000. By 11 a.m., the GoFundMe had raised $36,000 from more than 1,000 donors.
By noon, the fundraiser was over $45,000, and it eclipsed $50,000 by 1 p.m., according to GoFundMe. By 5 p.m., the total passed $75,000. It hit $100,000 less than 24 hours after the game was over on Wednesday night. By Thursday afternoon, there were donations from all 50 states, including 618 from Texas and 493 from North Carolina.
The pool of money grew with a $5,000 donation from philanthropist Mary Brock, the co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, who happens to be a Duke fan in the Bahamas for Thanksgiving.
“I love Duke,” she said. “But on the other hand, you know what? Wow. I think it’s awesome. This is what sports is all about.”
It is perfectly legal under NCAA rules for strangers to send more than $100,000 overnight to an unpaid college athlete. The governing body of college sports, which is under attack for policies that many around college sports believe to be somewhere between outdated and draconian, does allow certain benefits for college athletes. Rule 126.96.36.199 (g) in the NCAA bylaws stipulates that fundraisers are permissible under “extreme circumstances that should be extraordinary in the result of events beyond the student-athlete’s control (e.g. life-threatening illness, natural disaster).”
The upset also happened to be the day before the Bahamas hosted a basketball tournament featuring another team with some experience beating Duke in Cameron: the University of North Carolina.
“Bless you, your family and all the people of the Bahamas,” one donor wrote. “Also, Go Heels.”
There were people who love Duke letting him know about their affiliation when they gave him money: “I heard your story while you were beating my Dukies. You seem like a wonderful young man and deserved better.” There were many more people who hate Duke giving him even more money. “Your team beating Duke made my night. Here’s how I can say thanks!”
It has become very clear in retrospect that beating Duke on national television was a brilliant fundraising strategy—not that Stephen F. Austin officials ever thought about it. As they were discussing how much longer to keep the GoFundMe alive, the looming trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium didn’t even cross their minds.
“Not really,” Ivey said. “I don’t know that we could’ve scripted that Nate was going to hit the game-winning layup in overtime. Or we would’ve made sure we did that.”
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