For 19 years, Duke fans have pointed to their home nonconference record as a point of pride. Their last loss in front of the Cameron Crazies to a non-ACC foe came in February 2000—an 83-82 overtime defeat to quasi-rival St. John’s. Since then, six current members of the roster were born, and the Devils won 150 consecutive nonconference home matchups, besting title contenders like Michigan State (a few times), Georgetown, and Indiana with ease. That streak ended on Tuesday. Not to a national power, and not to a dark horse; they lost to Stephen F. Austin in overtime, 85-83. And they lost like this:
NO. 1 DUKE FALLS TO STEPHEN F. AUSTIN IN A STUNNING ENDING pic.twitter.com/x6xsdesWkL— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 27, 2019
Press your ear to the floor. If you listen closely, you can hear college hoops fans from Chapel Hill to Lexington roaring with laughter. And if you strain a little harder, you’ll probably hear Duke fans sigh so loudly they blow windows out of their houses. Those sighs likely started when the Blue Devils squandered a two-point advantage gifted because of a questionable foul and two free throws with less than 30 seconds remaining. They only grew louder when freshman wing Cassius Stanley missed a would-be game-winner at the end of regulation. Then the wheels really fell off. Duke scored only two points in overtime and gave away the game on one of the most bizarre sequences in recent memory.
Stephen F. Austin junior Gavin Kensmil collected the ball in a scrum under his own basket with just under five seconds remaining. He launched it forward to Nathan Bain, who, after watching Tre Jones and senior forward Jack White flail aimlessly for a steal, had an open path to the rim. His layup hit the twine as time expired, sealing the most surprising upset since then no. 1 Kentucky lost at home to Evansville two weeks ago.
Duke’s loss to Stephen F. Austin is the biggest upset in college basketball in the last 15 seasons, according to @ESPNStatsInfo. Duke was favored by 27.5.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) November 27, 2019
Duke entered Tuesday’s matchup 6-0, ranked first in the country and graded no. 1 overall by Ken Pomeroy. SFA, meanwhile, graded at no. 253 nationally, lost to Rutgers last week by 12 and logged its best win against no. 232 Drexel. The Lumberjacks hadn’t beaten a major-conference team away from their home gym in Nacogdoches, Texas, since beating Baylor down the road in Waco last December. They turn the ball over at one of the highest rates in the nation, don’t pick many pockets, and have reached the NCAA tournament just five times in school history. And yet they left Durham with a W. This wasn’t David killing Goliath. This was Goliath getting beaten to death by a David-shaped ant.
Stephen F. Austin didn’t shoot the lights out on Tuesday. Normally when an unknown beats a giant, it’s thanks to an improbable stroke, either by a hot hand or a collection of them. That wasn’t the case against Duke. The Lumberjacks connected on only two of 10 3-point attempts and shot just 48.6 percent from the field. But each time the Devils attempted to pull away, the Lumberjacks clawed their way back. In the first half, Duke led by 15. That gap was down to five at the break. Early in the second half it grew to seven. But before long, SFA held the lead.
Ball security left Duke vulnerable on Tuesday. Jones, normally sure-handed, spilled the rock eight times, and Duke gave the ball away eight more times than the visitors. On paper, though, that shouldn’t have stopped them from winning. They shot the ball better than Stephen F. Austin. They rebounded better than Stephen F. Austin. They sent away more shots than Stephen F. Austin. But they lost in a manner no way surprising to longtime Duke fans.
This year’s Blue Devils, like last year’s squad, can’t shoot to save their souls. Last season’s team shot 30.7 percent from beyond the arc—327th out of 353 teams in Division I. This season’s team isn’t much better. Through their first six games, Duke hit 33.3 percent of their deep attempts (an improved 146th in the country) but only pulled up from 3 less than a third of the time—its lowest 3-point attempt rate in more than a decade, long before the 3-point revolution began. It didn’t matter that Stephen F. Austin’s track record of defending the long-ball this season was abysmal; Duke couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The Devils finished Tuesday’s game 5-for-15 from deep, and more concerningly, 24-for-40 from the charity stripe.
Since 1997—the earliest KenPom data is available—Duke has never shot as poorly from the free throw line as it has this season. This Blue Devil team understands it doesn’t have the range, so it creates scoring opportunities by crashing the rim with star freshmen like Vernon Carey Jr. and Cassius Stanley, often leading to bonus attempts from the line. On Tuesday, they got their chances on the rim, but couldn’t convert free throws when it mattered. Carey and Stanley combined for 35 points on 13-for-22 shooting and five of Duke’s 12 offensive boards, but went 7-for-15 from the stripe.
Even on an off-shooting night, Duke is supposed to be talented enough to avoid embarrassing losses like this. Tre Jones was one of the top point guards in the country last season, and his return supposedly gave the Blue Devils the experience and distribution needed to tackle the best the sport has to offer. Most often, upsets occur when less-talented squads grind games to a halt, opting for rock fights rather than free-flowing basketball. Stephen F. Austin, who entered the game ranked 10th in pace, did no such thing, and took down the Blue Devils head on. SFA’s leading scorer, Kevon Harris, was unranked coming out of high school. Duke’s freshman class ranked third this year behind only Memphis and Kentucky, and all four first-year players are starters and graded among the top-40 freshmen in the country.
Duke’s loss is the third shocking defeat by a national title front-runner this season. Kentucky’s loss to Evansville and Michigan State’s to Virginia Tech were surprising at the time, but coupled with Tuesday’s upset, the losses paint a bigger picture. There likely isn’t a dominant team in college basketball this season. The level of national talent isn’t quite as high as it was when Zion Williamson and Ja Morant were floating above the court, and more seasoned teams like the Spartans haven’t quite figured things out yet. There’s still a chance that the stars align and one of the supposed contenders looks the part come conference season. But for now, the race for the 2020 national championship is as open as it’s ever been. And even Stephen F. Austin can slay a giant in its own house.