Elfrid Payton’s massive summer made possible by a Chris Paul camp snub

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USA Basketball

Elfrid Payton had a really, really good sophomore season, one that saw him average 15.9 points, 5.6 boards, 5.5 assists and 2.4 steals while playing more than 35 minutes a night.

Those are massive numbers, regardless of what level of basketball you play.

The problem, however, was that Payton played for Louisiana, a team that finished last season buried in eighth place in the Sun Belt with a forgettable 13-20 record. Payton was a first team all-Sun Belt selection and the guy that every coach game-planned around if they had UL on their schedule, but his notoriety didn’t make it much further than a scouting report for Arkansas State or South Alabama.

Such is life at the mid-major level, which is precisely why his head coach, Bob Marlin, spent all spring trying to get Payton into Chris Paul’s point guard camp. An invitation-only event stocked with some of the best high school and collegiate point guards from across the country, it would be the perfect place for a 6-foot-3 combo-guard to A) learn from some of the best skills instructors, including CP3 himself, and B) get some exposure, to be more than just a name known in Florida Atlantic’s locker room.

“We fought it pretty hard for about a month,” Marlin told NBCSports.com, but eventually, word came back that Payton would not be getting that invitation. “It was disappointing.”

And it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to him.

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Elfrid Payton is an opportunist.

Give him an inch, and he’s taking a yard. Let him get a foot in the door, and he’s busting through like Adrian Peterson catching a glimpse of the goal line.

As a 16 year old high school senior, Payton was 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, stuck playing second fiddle on a good John Ehret (LA) HS team that featured the more highly-regarded O.C. Tart. Payton was a Division I prospect, but he was the guy whose high school coach had to make calls on his behalf. That changed midway through the season, as Payton was given the reins to the team when Tart got himself suspended.

With a chance to show what he was capable of, Payton led Ehret to Louisiana’s state tournament semifinals, which just so happened to be played at UL’s Cajundome. At that point, Marlin had been recruiting Payton for about a month, Tulsa and New Mexico State were poking around, and Texas A&M had inquired about Payton attending prep school. A couple of weeks later, after visiting Payton at his high school, Marlin hosted Payton and his family on campus for an unofficial visit. Payton committed that day. “We just thought UL was the right place,” he told NBCSports.com. “It was close to home, my parents could come see my games, it was the right fit, and I could come in immediately and play, which was the biggest thing.”

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After a promising freshman season, Payton exploded as a sophomore, bolstered by a late growth spurt and an extra 20 pounds of muscle. It wasn’t enough to earn an invite to the Chris Paul camp, but Payton caught another break.

Sports Reach is a ministry that travels the world using athletics as a platform to share the Gospel. Based in Louisville, KY, it would only make sense that one of their main efforts involved basketball, and they’ve had some pretty prominent alumni. Jordy Hulls traveled with them in the summer of 2011. Peyton Siva, Victor Oladipo and Aaron White were on the team in 2012. This summer, Sports Reach had a point guard drop out of their two week trip to China, and when Marlin got word, he and Payton decided that it was probably his best chance at making a name for himself.

It wasn’t.

Unless you knew someone on that trip, you didn’t know about that trip.

But it forced Payton to get a passport, and that may have changed the course of his basketball career.

While Payton was on the trip, Marlin had a realization: Payton’s young for his age, as he turned 19 years old this February. That would make him eligible for the USA’s U-19 team, which is typically made up of high school seniors and college freshmen. Payton was due home in a couple of days, and the U-19 trials were due to start in about two weeks, but Marlin figured it was worth a shot to give the U-19 head coach, his old friend Billy Donovan, a call to make a pitch for Payton to get an invite to training camp.

“I know the trials have been set and it’s the last minute and I apologize, but I’ve got a young man that I think can help the team and bring some more experience to the group,” Marlin told Donovan. He referenced the 20 points and seven steals Payton had against Michigan State and the 17.5 points, 8.5 assists and 7.0 boards he had in two games against Richard Pitino’s FIU team. He told Donovan to ask around about this kid.

Donovan, Marlin said, told him that wasn’t necessary. He trusted his old friend’s opinion, and that a spot had opened up because Tyus Jones dropped out of the trials. Marlin would have to save the hard-sell for Sean Ford of USA Basketball, however. It was his decision to make.

When Marlin finally heard from Ford, the Men’s National Team Director, Ford only had two questions:

“Is Elfrid 19 years old?”

Yes. He turned 19 in February.

“Does he have a passport?”

Well, he does now.

From there, the story tells itself.

Payton was sensational during the training camp, beating out the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono, Kris Dunn, Damyeon Dotson, Javan Felix and Rodney Purvis for a spot on the 12 man roster. He then beat out Nigel Williams-Goss, James Robinson, Michael Frazier and Justise Winslow for a spot in Team USA’s starting lineup, where he was featured alongside future lottery picks Marcus Smart and Rasheed Sulaimon.

“I thought if given the opportunity to show it, I can play with those guys,” Payton said. “Once I got the chance I was able to seize the opportunity.”

Payton earning a spot on the team turned him into a major story in the college hoops world in the slow month of June; Ragin’ Cajun point guards don’t often don the red, white and blue. But it was his on the court that really got people talking. Payton is as athletic slasher that is a nightmare to keep out of the paint and a misery to try to handle the ball against. He’s still learning some of the intricacies of being a point guard — how to run a team, how to read the pick-and-roll, when to pick his spots — but the talent and the effort level is there.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T0pWY2Vq6Y]

While Payton was putting up nine points, six assists and five steals in the U-19 final against Serbia, Marlin was fielding calls from NBA front office types asking how the heck this kid ended up at UL. Given the success of mid-major combo-guards in recent years — Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the NBA has started inquiring.

All Payton needed was the exposure.

And if he had gotten that invite from the Chris Paul camp in the spring, he wouldn’t have been on that trip to China. If he didn’t take that trip to China, he wouldn’t have had a passport when USA Basketball extended him an invite.

“Opportunities don’t come around a lot,” Payton said. “So when they do, it’s important that you make the most of them.”

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Marlin got the news while Payton was in Prague representing his country.

“We get the call, finally, and they ask him to come to Chris Paul camp,” Marlin said. “I told the guy, we waited and we waited and we didn’t hear anything back. I said, ‘we tried’, and he said, ‘well, he’s in now.'”

It wasn’t quite that simple, though. The Chris Paul camp happened to coincide with UL’s trip to Spain this August. Payton would have a decision to make: go on an exhibition tour with his team, or spend three days in Winston-Salem at the camp he had worked so hard to get into five months ago.

He declined the invitation.

“Chris Paul isn’t going anywhere,” Payton said. “I felt like I needed to spend some time with my teammates and get better with my team. The most important goal is to win a conference championship and to make a run in March, and I just wanted to be with my team at that time.”

“Little things and reasons that went into the decision that I didn’t get in [initially] did kind of put a chip on my shoulder, but everything happens for a reason. It was alright. I was able to experience the U-19. The whole thing about the Chris Paul camp was getting exposure, and the U-19s did that for me.”

Vandy stuns No. 6 Tennessee on Lawrence’s buzzer-beating 3

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Vanderbilt Commodores and coach Jerry Stackhouse finally experienced the thrill of a big upset inside the Southeastern Conference’s oldest gym.

The Commodores had struggled for so long with crowds dwindling that the old Memorial Gym magic seemed gone.

Not Wednesday night.

Tyrin Lawrence knocked down a 3-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer as the Commodores snapped an 11-game skid against its in-state rival by upsetting sixth-ranked Tennessee 66-65 Wednesday night.

Stackhouse called Lawrence’s shot the biggest of his tenure and maybe his favorite spanning both his own playing career in the NBA and now coaching career.

“We finally experienced it, the Memorial Magic we were looking for,” Stackhouse said. “Unbelievable game, unbelievable effort. Guys never quit. Didn’t look great there for a minute, but we just kept battling.”

Students rushed the court and joined the Commodores in celebrating easily the program’s biggest win in nearly 11 years. Then the Commodores (12-12, 5-6) celebrated by running along the courtside slapping high-fives.

Tennessee (19-5, 8-2) had every chance to finish off the win after Olivier Nkamhoua’s 15-foot jumper with 50 seconds left put the Vols up 65-63 lead. Liam Robbins missed a turnaround jumper with 27 seconds for Vanderbilt, and Zakai Zeigler grabbed the rebound.

Vols freshman Julian Phillips had a chance to dunk in the final seconds but kept dribbling to force another Vanderbilt foul.

“I am not sure what was going through his head there,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t think he will ever make that mistake again.”

Vanderbilt had to foul five times to finally send Santiago Vescovi to the line with 8 seconds left.

He missed the first shot, and Lawrence grabbed the rebound. Stackhouse took a timeout with 4 seconds to go to set up the final play, and Ezra Manjon drove to the basket before passing out to Lawrence in the corner for the winning bucket.

“It felt great,” said Lawrence, who Stackhouse benched for an ugly loss to No. 4 Alabama last week. “It’s the stuff we dream about as kids just in the back yard counting down `3, 2, 1.’ Glad I was able to hit the game winner.”

Lawrence finished with a team-high 19 points. Robbins added 14 and nine rebounds, and Jordan Wright had 12.

Vescovi and Tyreke Key each had 14 to lead Tennessee. Olivier Nkamhoua and Julian Phillips added 10 apiece.

Tennessee led 34-32 at halftime setting up a thrilling finish in a game that featured 15 lead changes and nine ties.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee was shooting well over 55% before hitting the kind of scoring drought that usually plagues the Vols in their losses. The Vols went 4:27 without a bucket as Vandy scored six straight to stay close. The nation’s best 3-point defense, which had been holding opponents to 21.9% shooting outside the arc, also gave up a season-high 10 3s with Lawrence’s game-winner the last.

Vanderbilt improved to 100-259 all-time against Top 25 opponents, and the Commodores improved to 2-3 this season. They now are 4-16 against ranked opponents under Stackhouse. … Lawrence’s game-winning shot was Vandy’s first made bucket since the 3:44 mark.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The road is turning into a challenging issue for the Volunteers with a second straight loss away from home, and this won’t help them stay in the Top 10.

DID IT COUNT?

Stackhouse tapped a play used by Dwane Casey when the Vandy coach worked with him in the NBA in Toronto. Stackhouse added some wrinkles with Manjon driving toward the basket where the Vols collapsed on him before whipping the pass down the baseline to Lawrence.

While everyone celebrated the shot, Stackhouse asked the scorekeeper if it counted. They didn’t know.

“Then (official) Tony Greene came over and he said it was good. `We’re gonna look at it, but it was good.’ I can’t contain myself. I hugged Tony Greene,” Stackhouse said with a big smile.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts Missouri on Saturday night.

Vanderbilt visits Florida.

Hepburn scores 19, Wisconsin tops Penn State 79-74 in OT

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Chucky Hepburn scored 19 points and Connor Essegian added 18, the two combining for nine of Wisconsin’s 11 3-pointers in a 79-74 overtime victory over Penn State on Wednesday night.

After a layup by Max Klesmit gave Wisconsin a 76-72 lead with 44 seconds remaining in overtime, Penn State’s Camren Wynter missed a 3-pointer and the Badgers closed out the victory at the free-throw line.

Hepburn made 5 of 9 3-pointers and Essegian 4 of 7 for the Badgers, who were 11 of 24 from 3-point distance. Tyler Wahl had 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds for Wisconsin (14-9, 6-7 Big Ten) and Steven Crowl added 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Jalen Pickett, who earlier this week was named one of 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award, had 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (14-10, 5-8). Seth Lundy added 14 points, nine rebounds and three steals, making 4 of 8 3-pointers. Camren Wynter scored 15 points and Andrew Funk 10.

With 59 seconds left in regulation and the score tied at 65, Essegian forced a turnover by Wynter. Wisconsin called timeout with 44 seconds remaining, setting up a 3-pointer by Hepburn. Lundy hit a tying 3-pointer with 23 seconds left and Wisconsin played for the last shot but did not score.

In beating Penn State for the fifth consecutive time, Wisconsin swept the season series and handed the Nittany Lions their second home loss in 13 games. Wisconsin had lost seven of nine previous games coming in.

Wisconsin plays at Nebraska on Saturday, the same day that Penn State plays at Maryland.

UConn women lose 2nd straight game for 1st time since 1993

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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MILWAUKEE – UConn coach Geno Auriemma could sense from the start of the night that something was off about his team.

By the time the evening ended, the Huskies were staring at their first losing streak in three decades, ending one of the most remarkable achievements in college basketball history.

Chloe Marotta had 19 points and Jordan King added 18 as Marquette defeated UConn 59-52 on Wednesday. The Huskies, who were playing three nights after an 81-77 home loss to No. 1 South Carolina, dropped consecutive games for the first time since March 1993.

“When people read that stat and they look back, that is a fairy-tale stat,” Auriemma said. “And all fairy tales – they don’t always come true – but everything has an end. So this ended here at Marquette.”

Marquette (16-8, 9-6 Big East) beat UConn (21-4, 13-1) for the first time in 17 meetings.

The Golden Eagles had led UConn early in the fourth quarter at home last season before fading down the stretch and losing 72-58.

This time, the Golden Eagles closed the deal, holding the Huskies to their lowest point total of the season.

“We came into a huddle and we were at the media timeout in the fourth quarter, and I was like, `We were here last year. I’m not watching film on how we lost in the last five minutes,’ ” King said. “You have to put 40 minutes of basketball together. For us, I felt we did that.”

Marquette coach Megan Duffy, who played at Notre Dame from 2002-06, became just the third person ever to beat an Auriemma-coached UConn team as both a player and a coach. The others are South Carolina’s Dawn Staley and Villanova’s Denise Dillon.

“In some ways, I’m speechless,” Duffy said. “The next emotion is I’m just incredibly proud of these women and what they did tonight – a historic win for Marquette women’s basketball. We knew we were up against a buzzsaw with Connecticut losing on Sunday.”

Dorka Juhasz led UConn with 15 points. Aubrey Griffin and Lou Lopez Senechal added 12 points each.

After missing eight of its first nine shots, Marquette went on a 21-2 spurt over an eight-minute stretch to turn an 8-2 deficit into a 23-10 advantage. The Golden Eagles never trailed again, though UConn briefly tied the game in the third quarter.

King started the momentum shift by scoring 10 straight points on her own, including a pair of 3-pointers.

“I think that just completely and totally deflated us,” Auriemma said. “After the week that we’ve had – after the 10 days, two weeks, whatever – we just, I think mentally, all of us … I think we just checked out. It was a major struggle because they were so locked in, their team, in what they wanted to do.”

UConn tied the game at 31 on an Aaliyah Edwards basket with 6:10 left in the period. Marquette regained the lead 21 seconds later on Marotta’s 3-pointer and carried a 39-38 edge into the final quarter.

Marquette gradually built the lead in the final period and got ahead 51-44 on a Marotta jumper with 1:35 left. UConn made its last charge by cutting the margin to 51-47 on a Juhasz 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining.

After Marquette initially struggled to get the ball inbounds and had to call a timeout, the Golden Eagles beat the press and got the ball to Emily La Chapell for a layup with 1:15 remaining.

That started a 6-0 run that put the game out of reach.

“I said this to them in the locker room,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know if it was residue from Sunday, whether something in practice yesterday, something on the trip over, but there was a collective something different about today.”

BIG PICTURE

UConn: Even after the Huskies dug themselves such a deep hole in the first half, UConn had reason to believe it could put this game away by dominating the fourth quarter, just as it had in last season’s game at Marquette. It didn’t happen. Azzi Fudd, who scored 24 points and sparked that fourth-quarter surge in last season’s game at Marquette, hasn’t played since injuring her right knee Jan. 15 against Georgetown.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles are on the NCAA Tournament bubble, so this game was huge for their postseason hopes. Marquette now must make sure it doesn’t have any letdowns the rest of the season.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

UConn moved up a spot in the poll after losing a close game to South Carolina. The Huskies figure to fall out of the top five now.

HISTORIC LOSS

The Huskies had been 74-0 after losing games since they lost the consecutive games in 1993 to Providence in the Big East Tournament semifinals and Louisville in the NCAA Mideast Regional first-round game.

UP NEXT

UConn: At Georgetown on Saturday.

Marquette: At Providence on Feb. 15.

Gardner, Beekman lift No. 8 Virginia past No. 22 N.C. State

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Virginia coach Tony Bennett had a simple message for his team after a poor defensive performance in a loss at Virginia Tech.

“Talk is cheap. Do it. Show us, to our players, to us as a staff, show up, work in practice, step to between the lines and don’t lose yourself in anything but what your job is,” Bennett said he told his players and assistants in the two days of practice since the 74-68 loss.

The team clearly got the message.

Jayden Gardner scored 18 points, Reece Beekman added 15 and No. 8 Virginia cooled off red-hot No. 22 North Carolina State 63-50 on Tuesday night.

“We had a great two days before State, you know, preparation and just diving in,” Gardner said. “It’s just this is the time of the season we need to lock in and you know, we’re playing for something. … We’re trying to win a championship.”

The Cavaliers (18-4, 10-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) handed the Wolfpack (19-6, 9-5) their second loss in 10 games and moved into a share of first place in the conference with Clemson and Pittsburgh.

The Wolfpack arrived leading the ACC with an average of 79.6 points and were 19-2 when scoring at least 70, but became the 38th consecutive league opponent held below 70 points at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Obviously, as I watched the Virginia Tech game and knew that those guys dropped the game and, you know, any time you’re going to play a very good defensive team on their home floor, you know you’re going to get that energy,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said.

Terquavion Smith led N.C. State with 19 points and Casey Morsell, who spent his first two seasons at Virginia and was jeered nearly every time he touched the ball in his first game back, had 18 points before fouling out in the final minute.

Jarkel Joiner, the Wolfpack’s No. 2 scorer at 16.2 points per game, missed 12 of his 14 shots and scored five points. D.J. Burns Jr. (eight points) was the only other Wolfpack player to score.

Reserve forward Kadin Shedrick, who did not play in Virginia’s loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday, had 10 points and six rebounds for the Cavaliers.

Virginia scored the first six points of the second half to open its largest lead at 40-20, but the Wolfpack began whittling away, fueled by a 12-6 burst in which Smith and Morsell each hit a pair of 3-pointers.

“In the past, we’ve been able to control the tempo and to get those guys to play a little bit faster and even turn them over,” said Keatts, whose team had won three of the last four meetings. “But we couldn’t.”

N.C. State twice closed within nine points but got no closer. Morsell’s 3 made it 55-46 with 3:46 to play, but Beekman made a free throw and then took a no-look pass from Kihei Clark for an easy backdoor layup.

Virginia closed the first half on an 8-2 run to lead 34-20 at the break. The Wolfpack missed 10 straight shots before Burns scored just before the half.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack got scoring from just three players – Smith with nine points, Morsell with seven and Burns with four – in the opening half. They shot 25.8% with Smith going 4 for 13 and Joiner 0 for 6. … Burns picked up his third personal foul less than a minute into the second half after getting the ball stolen by Beekman. He stayed in the game and drew his fourth foul on a drive by Clark with 16:03 left.

Virginia: Beekman started the game ranking first in the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.0) and third in assists (5.1). He had four assists and one turnover. Clark started first in assists (6.0) and second in assist/turnover ratio (2.8). He had six assists and three turnovers.

UP NEXT

N.C. State: At Boston College on Saturday.

Virginia: Hosts Duke on Saturday.

Michigan St. rallies to win after giving up lead to Maryland

Maryland v Michigan State
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Joey Hauser scored 20 points and Tyson Walker had 17 and Michigan State rallied after scoring the game’s first 15 points to beat Maryland 63-58 on Tuesday.

A.J. Hoggard had 10 rebounds and eight assists for Michigan State.

Jahmir Young scored 17 points for Maryland, Hakim Hart 12, Julian Reese 11 and Donta Scott 10 for the Terrapins.

The Spartans (15-9, 7-6 Big Ten) used an 8-0 run in which Walker made a layup and 3-pointer wrapped around a 3 from Jaden Akins for a 52-48 lead with 7:44 remaining and Michigan State led for the remainder.

The Terrapins erupted for a 12-0 run in less than three minutes in the second half turning a 38-26 deficit into a 38-all tie. Young and Hart posted back-to-back three-point plays, and Hart’s 3-pointer with 13:01 knotted it at 38. Prior to that 3, Hart was 3-for-last-27 shooting from beyond the arc. Maryland finished shooting 3 of 22 from distance.

Michigan State started the game with a 15-0 run and led 31-22 at halftime. Coming off an 81-46 win over Maryland (16-8, 7-6 Big Ten) on Saturday, the Terrapins have yet to win back-to-back contests in almost three years.

The Terrapins host Penn State on Saturday. Michigan State travels to play Ohio State on Sunday.