“The banners aren’t going to beat us,” he had said. “Remember, we’ve won 24 conference championships in our history — just like they’ve won all sorts of conference titles. In our league [the Southland Conference], we’re Duke. We’re everybody’s biggest game, just like they are year in and year out. This is one time we can go out on the court with no pressure, no expectations and just play. Enjoy the moment.”
Keller meant every word. He believed his Lumberjacks could be a headache for Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils. “We play differently than other teams,” he said Friday morning from his office. “We force more turnovers than anyone in the country because we attack all over the court and we push the ball every chance we get.” He laughed. “That’s one reason teams don’t want to play us. That and the fact that we’re good. I’m sitting here right now with seven nonconference games to schedule for next season.”
But that November morning, as Keller was pushing sleep from his eyes, his wife, Chaunsea, walked into the room and said, “I just read that Duke is favored by 27.”
“That made me nervous,” Keller said. “I’d never been a 27-point underdog in any game in any place. Rest of the day I was about as God-dang nervous as I’ve ever been.”
Midway through the first half, when Duke took a 33-18 lead, it looked as if Keller had reason to feel that way. By halftime, though, the margin was down to 45-40 thanks in large part to leading scorer Kevon Harris, who had torched the Blue Devils for 20 points.
And as his players walked to the bench with 15:43 left in the game, trailing 51-44, Keller turned to Chaunsea — who was sitting right behind the bench — and said, “I don’t know if you got a bet down, babe, but I think I got you covered.”
He had her more than covered. The Lumberjacks won, 85-83, in overtime when junior forward Gavin Kensmil stole the ball from Duke freshman Matthew Hurt with four seconds left and fed Nathan Bain, who went nearly the length of the court and made the winning layup as the buzzer sounded.
It was, in terms of point spread, the biggest upset in Division I basketball in 15 years. Duke hadn’t lost a nonconference home game in almost 20 years.
“It was a major upset, no doubt,” Keller said. “But greatest in history? Come on. Stephen F. Austin has played a lot of good basketball through the years. We have good players, and our style makes us tough to play against. Big-time upset? Absolutely. But let’s not take it too far.”
How far did people take it? Bain’s family is from the Bahamas and, like thousands who lived there, had been devastated in early September by Hurricane Dorian. Bain’s father is a pastor, and his church was destroyed. His family’s house was badly damaged. The Stephen F. Austin athletic department had put together a GoFundMe page to try to raise money for Bain’s family.
The morning of the Duke game, the account had received about $2,000 in contributions. The goal had been $25,000.
“To be honest, I was disappointed we hadn’t been able to do better,” Keller said.
Within a week of the Duke upset, the account was at roughly $75,000. Many of the contributions came with notes that said things such as, “You have done mankind a good deed by beating Duke.” There were also some that said, “I’m a Duke fan, but I’m happy to try to help your family out.”
“It was more than just a great win,” Keller said. “It was a blessing for a family that deserved it.” He paused and laughed. “I know people like to chop Coach Krzyzewski down whenever they can because he’s had so much success, but I guarantee you he was happy to see those donations come out of his team’s loss.”
Keller is 52, and this is his first Division I head coaching job, having succeeded Brad Underwood in the spring of 2016. His route through coaching, with multiple stops as an assistant, is familiar, but his story is considerably different.
On Jan. 27, 2001, Keller was an assistant at Oklahoma State when the Cowboys lost at Colorado. The team traveled on three small planes, and Keller was going to depart Colorado on the last of the three. But Coach Eddie Sutton wanted Keller home as soon as possible to begin scouting for the next game, so Keller switched seats with freshman walk-on Nate Fleming.
Fleming was also Keller’s cousin. He was one of 10 people who died that evening when their plane crashed in a snowstorm not long after takeoff. Keller has a photo of Fleming on his desk that he looks at every day.
On his jacket lapel, he still wears a gold pin emblazoned with the No. 10 and a ribbon colored Oklahoma State orange. After a game at Sam Houston State early this month, Keller ran into Brett Weiberg — older brother of Jared, a student manager who also died in the crash. “He told me his parents were watching the Duke game and when they saw the pin, they started crying and couldn’t stop,” he said, his voice choking a little bit at the memory. “The men on that plane are my angels. I know they’re here, they’re part of my life — they help make good things happen. I really believe that.”
His kids are 24-3 and leading the Southland Conference after Saturday’s win at Incarnate Word. Their losses are at Rutgers — which was unbeaten at home until this past Wednesday — and at Alabama. Their only conference loss was 73-72 in early January to Texas A&M Corpus Christi on a missed layup at the buzzer.
Even with the Duke win on his team’s résumé, Keller has no illusions about his team’s narrow way to the NCAA tournament. “We were up 28 [against Central Arkansas] on Wednesday, and I got 12 guys into the game,” he said. “We ended up winning by 15. I know the NET” — the NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings used by the tournament selection committee — “takes into account margin of wins, but I’m not going to pass on giving my guys the chance to play to try to bolster our NET. I want a happy locker room. I ask too much of these guys in practice every day to not get them into games when I have the chance.”
The NET has become the NCAA basketball’s committee’s crutch, and teams from mid-major conferences get hurt — as they did with the old RPI metric — when they play lower-ranked teams in their conferences. Stephen F. Austin has been ranked as high as 38th in the NET this season. Going into Saturday’s 80-56 victory at Incarnate Word, the Lumberjacks were 87th.
As Keller says, if his team doesn’t win the conference tournament, “nothing’s going to matter, including the Duke game. Same with seeding. If we do win out, they’re still going to make us a double-digit seed. That’s fine. I tell the kids, ‘Let’s give ourselves a chance to beat Kentucky or Illinois [Underwood’s current team] or, heck, Duke again.’ Why not? We’ve won NCAA tournament games before [in 2014 and 2016]; let’s do it again.’ ”
You can bet one thing: If the Lumberjacks do play Duke again, they won’t be 27-point underdogs.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.