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Long trip to Big Dance

Matt Kingsley holds the trophy as the Lumberjacks celebrate the Southland Conference title. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Matt Kingsley holds the trophy as the Lumberjacks celebrate the Southland Conference title. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Stephen F. Austin in first NCAAs

From Nacogdoches to the NCAAs.

It’s a long trip for Stephen F. Austin.

A really long trip, actually.

Only 86 years and 2,099 games after the program was born, the team from Texas’ oldest city – about equal distance from Dallas and Houston, not far from the Louisiana state line – is getting its first shot on college basketball’s biggest stage. Seeded No. 14 in the South regional, the Lumberjacks (24-7) play third-seeded Syracuse (26-9) on Friday in Miami.

A daunting challenge, for certain, but one Stephen F. Austin couldn’t be more thrilled about.

“It’s self-gratification beyond description,” Lumberjacks coach Danny Kaspar said Tuesday. “We are a band of brothers. That’s what the shirts we made at the beginning of the year say. It is just a great, great feeling to finally achieve all your goals and get to where you’ve strived, where you’ve worked so hard to get for all your life.”

In some college towns, getting to a first-round game is, well, ho-hum. After all, 61 of the 65 schools in this year’s field had been there before, and 54 of them have at least one win in an NCAA tournament game.

Not so in Nacogdoches, Texas.

For the town of about 35,000, just getting there is a big deal.

“You drive down the main street here and you see all the marquees in front of businesses with ‘Best wishes ‘Jacks’ and ‘Good luck in the NCAAs,’ that type of thing,” said Rob Meyers, Stephen F. Austin’s assistant athletic director for business and the team’s play-by-play voice.

“Now, having cut down the nets, it’s really for real,” forward Josh Alexander said Sunday after the Lumberjacks beat Texas-San Antonio 68-57 for the Southland Conference title.

Stats suggest these guys can play.

Since the start of last season, Stephen F. Austin has 50 wins and the 14th-best winning percentage in the country.

The reason is defense. Over the past two seasons, the Lumberjacks rank seventh in lowest field-goal percentage allowed, have defended the 3-pointer better than any team in the nation, and have given up the second-fewest points per game in all of Division I.

“We’ve had some big upsets,” Kaspar said. “Last year we beat Oklahoma. Beat San Diego at San Diego, who later beat Connecticut. This year we came within an eyelash of upsetting Texas A&M on their home court. We have the capability. If we can control our emotions and our nerves, I’m very confident we can give these young men a great game or beat them.”

Not so surprisingly, Syracuse didn’t know much about its NCAA foe when the brackets came out Sunday night.

Jonny Flynn, the MVP of the Big East tournament and who played 67 minutes in the Orange’s six-overtime win over Connecticut, said he figured the Lumberjacks were from Texas because “Austin” was in the school’s name. (Indeed, Texas’ capital is also named for Stephen F. Austin, but the school and city bearing his name are separated by 235 miles.)

Syracuse’s Eric Devendorf didn’t even try to camouflage how little he knew of the Lumberjacks.

“I never heard of Stephen F. Austin, to tell you the truth,” Devendorf said. “I’m sure they’re pretty good, but I’ve never heard of them.”

In fairness, Devendorf isn’t exactly a household name in Nacogdoches, either.

“We can’t give them any easy looks. That’s going to be hard with Jonny Flynn,” Kasper said. “And the other kid, Devenbaugh? Defenbaugh? We can’t give him easy looks either.”

Oddly, this postseason trip might be far easier for Stephen F. Austin than their last.

The Lumberjacks played in the NIT last year, learning about 9 on selection night that they would play less than two full days later at Massachusetts.

The team split into two travel parties at 7 a.m. the following day, arriving in New England several hours apart because finding enough seats on the same flight was impossible, and didn’t even get on the practice floor at Amherst until about 10 p.m. Monday.

The next night, the Lumberjacks stayed with UMass for a while, then tired down the stretch and lost 80-60.

No such travel problems this time. The Lumberjacks will take a charter flight to Miami today, plenty of time for final preparations before seeing Syracuse on Friday afternoon.

“I personally think we have more of a chance of beating Syracuse, a three seed, on a neutral floor with four days to prepare than you do beating UMass with 45 hours to prepare,” Kaspar said. “We know the cards are stacked against us. We’ll need one of those classic shots at the end of the game, a buzzer-beater to win. They know that.”