March tends to bring out the unexpected hero.
On Friday, the college basketball world got more than its fair share, with buzzer-beaters and upsets dotting the tournament landscape.
One such hero was already known to those who follow the game closely, but coming into the tournament, maybe not to the casual fan.
After 33 points and a 70-56 upset win over West Virginia, Stephen F. Austin's Thomas Walkup is the latest mid-major household name, joining Harold Arceneaux, Omar Samhan and Ali Farokhmanesh before him.
He's known for his game, for his poise and, of course, his facial hair.
His bushy red beard resembles that of the Lumberjacks' mascot, though he insists that's a coincidence. It was actually born Nov. 1 as part of a No Shave November pledge, but when the Lumberjacks' wins started piling up in December, he couldn't shave it off.
Despite his superstitions, Walkup carries himself with the kind of reserved confidence that one would expect from a senior who's won in the tournament before.
That's because he has. Walkup was on the Lumberjacks team two years ago that upset VCU in the Round of 64, and on the team last year that gave Utah all it could handle in the tournament.
Stephen F. Austin
Stephen F. Austin
When Walkup, a Pasadena, Texas native, arrived in Nacogdoches, he came with hardly any fanfare. Stephen F. Austin and Houston Baptist were the only schools to offer him out of high school, so his commitment was easy.
"A lot of guys passed on me, and that was a little fuel for me, personally," he said. "Inside, you have a little fire in your heart."
As a freshman, he saw time immediately, averaging 18.5 minutes and 4.4 points per in his first year. But his career made a leap at the start of his second season, and by tournament time, he was playing his absolute best, scoring in double figures in 12 of the final 13 games of the season.
The next year, he dropped 20, even 30 points, consistently, including a 24-point, 9-for-12 shooting performance in the Southland Championship game.
Back in the tournament again, that fire he plays with translated into a cool 19-for-20 performance from the foul line on Friday in the highest pressure game of the year.
"That's months, years in the gym," he said. "I think just being here before has helped with composure and with the nerves."
While Walkup has been in this spot before, this time it's as a college graduate. The three-time conference MVP completed his degree in December, but never had any doubt about finishing his career at Stephen F. Austin.
"There's a reason I didn't have any other scholarship offers," he said. Then, alluding to the Lumberjacks' coaching staff in the locker room, added, "I wasn't any good. Those guys in there made me."
And, according to head coach Brad Underwood, Walkup can do more.
"It was a doggone good one," he said about his star's performance Friday. "But no. I've seen him play better."
Maybe. He's certainly had games with better stat lines, but not on this stage, where he led his team in this way. Though he did most of his damage at the free throw line, Walkup iced the game with 1:12 to play. He went one-on-one with West Virginia's Devin Williams, tried his best to shake him, then pulled up anyway and buried a three from the left wing.
That was the final Stephen F. Austin basket of the game, and sent the Brooklyn crowd of over 17,000 into an uproar.
In a game where Walkup provided the steady leadership, it was that bit of flash he unleashed that sealed the victory.
"If I had to start a team," Underwood said, "I'm going to be hard pressed to find one that I would take over him."
Not bad for someone with a lucky beard and two Division-I offers.
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Watch No. 11 Northern Iowa stun No. 6 Texas with this amazing buzzer beater from half court
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