San Diego, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks will try to extend one of the nation's longest winning streaks in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night when they take on the fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth Rams at Viejas Arena.
The winner advances to the Round of 32 to play either Tulsa or UCLA.
SFA (31-2) dominated the Southland Conference this season, capping off an 18-0 regular season with a 68-49 triumph over Sam Houston State in the conference tournament championship game to give it 28 straight victories dating back to late November. The Lumberjacks are making just their second NCAA Tournament appearance, previously qualifying in 2009 field with a No. 14 seed, losing to Syracuse in the opening round, 59-44.
VCU (26-8), one of six teams from the Atlantic 10 to earn a tournament bid, finished second in the conference at 12-4 and fell just shy of Saint Joseph's in the tournament title game, 65-61. This marks the Rams' fourth straight NCAA Tournament, a school record. They are 11-12 in tournament action, with their best showing coming during an improbable Final Four run in 2011 as an 11-seed.
The Lumberjacks and the Rams have never before played one another on the hardwood.
The Lumberjacks battled tight with Sam Houston State in the first half of the Southland title bout but pulled away early in the second stanza to cruise to the 19-point victory, as they outshot their adversary from the field, 49 percent to 38.6 percent. Thomas Walkup paced the effort with 19 points on 8- of-10 from the floor. Deshaunt Walker came off the bench to drain 4-of-8 from 3-point range for 12 points and Jacob Parker tallied a double-double of 10 points and 12 rebounds.
SFA has enjoyed a potent offensive attack this season, as it shoots 46.4 percent from the field for 76.5 ppg, but the biggest reason for its dominance has been due to its excellent defense. The squad yields just 62.6 ppg and its turnover margin (+5.2) is tied for fifth best in the nation. Desmond Haymond (14.3 ppg) and Parker (14.2 ppg) are neck-and-neck for the scoring lead, with Parker adding 7.1 rpg as well. Walkup (12.9 ppg), Walker (12.0 ppg) and Nikola Gajic (9.6 ppg) round out the balanced squad.
The Rams were locked up in a back-and-forth battle with Saint Joseph's in the A-10 championship game and took a 52-50 lead with 4:32 left on a Juvonte Reddic layup, but from there the Hawks took control with a 12-4 run. The squad was done in by a poor 36.9 percent showing from the field, and its performance from the free-throw line was lackluster as well (8-of-15). Rob Brandenberg netted 18 points in the losing effort, while Treveon Graham posted 15 points and nine rebounds.
VCU is another team defined by its play on the defensive end of the court, with head coach Shaka Smart's "Havoc" defense resulting in a nation-leading 11.2 spg and the third-best turnover margin (+6.0). The team's actively in the passing lanes helps it shield a disappointing field-goal percentage (.419), as it is still able to boast a strong +10.1 scoring margin. Graham is the top scoring option with 15.7 ppg to go with 7.0 rpg, while Reddic (11.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.1 bpg) is also a fixture in the paint. Briante Weber (9.5 ppg, 3.8 apg) is an elite defender with his 3.4 spg tops in the nation and Brandenberg brings 9.8 ppg to the table. Melvin Johnson (10.4 ppg) is doubtful for this contest with a sprained knee.