Stanford Snaps Losing Skid in Dramatic Fashion Over Utah, Ends Pac-12 Play on High Note

DSC_0004By Matthew Harrington

STANFORD, Calif. – With the overflowing talent on display on a nightly basis in the Pac-12, it’s only fitting that it took Stanford literally until the last tenths of a second of conference play to better understand its Pac-12 tournament placement. While the conference tourney picture got a little clearer, it’s still about as blurry as a Monet masterpiece from ten feet out. As for the Cardinal odds for making its first NCAA tournament appearance under coach Johnny Dawkins in six seasons, those are as crystal clear as the scrambled channels on the higher ends of your TV guide.

With a 61-60 win over visiting Utah (20-10, 9-9 Pac-12) Saturday afternoon at Maples Pavilion, the Stanford Cardinal broke a tie in the standings with their guests in a game with must-win implications. Also entering play with an identical 9-8 conference record were Oregon and Cal, a four-way tie for fifth in the Pac-12 standings. With Arizona State and Colorado boasting 10-7 entering Saturday, the Cardinal (19-11, 10-8 Pac-12) could secure a first-round bye in Las Vegas if Colorado, Oregon and Oregon State come away with wins in their regular-season finales. They could finish as high as tied for third, or as low as fifth depending on the rest of the weekend’s action.

“I know it’s important to finish at over .500 in conference,” said Dawkins after the game. “We’re in one of the best conferences in America. To finish over .500 should give you an opportunity to see what happens. That’s out of our hands. We just need to keep winning games.”

Stanford opened the morning with a heartfelt pregame ceremony honoring the senior stalwarts, players like all-time Cardinal blocks leader Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell, but after 40 minutes of basketball it was a junior, Chasson Randle, being lauded for his play while weathering the maelstrom of emotion.

“It’s a little emotional because of what the game meant and also because it’s Senior Day,” said Dawkins. “There’s a lot of family here. Senior Day is always interesting because of all the emotion. Our guys remained focus, stepped up and helped, the Chasson Randles, the Marcus Allens. I thought those guys really stepped up and helped the seniors.”

After an eye-popping 24-point night Wednesday in a loss to Colorado, Randle dropped 22 points over 39 minutes of play against the Utes, snapping Stanford’s season-high three-game losing streak to wrap up the last home game of the regular season.

“Chasson’s played terrific for us,” said Dawkins. “He’s doing everything for us. He scores. He makes guys better on our team based on how he goes out there and approaches it. I love coaching him. I’m proud of him because of the bounce back he had from last year. It says a lot about him, about his character, about who he is.

NBA draft hopeful Dwight Powell found himself in foul trouble for the second-straight game in a row, playing only 26 minutes Saturday after the forward saw action in only 24 Wednesday. He managed seven points on 3-of-8 shooting to accompany five rebounds. Stefan Nastic owned the paint in his absence, going 6-for-6 from the field to finish with 14 points. Guard Brandon Taylor led the Runnin’ Utes charge with 14 points, while fellow guard Delon Wright and center Dallin Bachynski notched 12 and 10 respectively.

Despite hitting over 55.6 percent of shots in the first half, Utah found itself trailing the Cardinal 33-25. Stanford made 14 shots on 31 attempts, only four fewer makes than Utah’s 18 attempts in the first. The Cardinal never trailed over the first 20 minutes of play, scoring on a Powell jumper 34 seconds in to take the 2-0 lead. Stanford outscored the Utes 27-16 over the first 14-plus minutes of play for the largest lead of the afternoon, but Utah finished the half with a 9-6 run to head into intermission trailing 33-25.

The Utes opened the second half with back-to-back field goals, including a Jordan Loveridge three, to cut the Cardinal lead to 33-30 just 1:05 in. It would be over ten minutes before either side made consecutive attempts from the floor after going nearly shot-for-shot when Nastic and Randle finally dropped consecutive jumpers to bolster Stanford’s edge 52-43. Nastic then took a Randle feed to the rim for a 11-point gap with 7:51 left in regulation.

“It was frustrating,” said Nastic. “We knew we had to come out with a higher energy level but for whatever reason, there were plays were weren’t making that the other team was making. It was very frustrating but we’ve been through a lot this season sticking together. We really tried to seize the opportunity at hand.”

Persistent Utah refused to yield with Wright and Taylor hitting shots from beyond the arc then Jeremy Olsen laid one up to cut the deficit to three points for the second time in the half. Randle made a pair from the stripe after Bachynski fouled the guard, but Olsen hit a jumper with 4:34 left in the half to make it 56-53. Nastic would hit one of two shots after Olsen fouled him on the floor with Stanford in the Bonus but Taylor ’s shot from downtown at the other end put Utah within one, the closest Utah disadvantage up to that point. Bachynski then hammered home the Utes first lead of the day, 58-56, with a heavy dunk after an offensive board 2:40 from a win.

Huestis responded at the other end with a three to put the Cardinal up by two with 180 seconds remaining before Bachynski hit a pair of free throws to knot the game at 60 just 55 seconds from the final buzzer. Powell drew a foul with 36 seconds remaining and hit one of two freebies, the eventual game-winner, for a 61-60 edge. In total, Stanford hit only four of ten free throws over the closing five minutes.

“Utah is a very good basketball team,” said Dawkins. “They’ve been on the road, they’ve won six out of their last eight games. We knew it was going to be a tough game, we knew it was going to come down to the wire. Defensively, we got the stops that we needed. It offset some of the free throws we missed. Our guys didn’t hang their heads.”

With the shot and game clock down to one second, Brandon Taylor turned the ball over on a traveling call, seemingly icing the game for Stanford. Powell couldn’t find a way to inbound the ball, turning it over with .8 seconds of play, breathing new life into the Utes comeback bid. They would fail to get the ball back in play for a desperation heave, firing the inbound pass into two Stanford players’ grasp as time expired.

Dawkins predicted this game would be close, but even he had no clue how slim the margin of victory would be when he gathered his team at center court Friday to address some of his players for the last time on Stanford’s home floor.

“We stood at center court yesterday with the seniors,” said Dawkins. “I said ‘You know what, the game is about finding a way, finding a way to win, whatever it takes. All through your lives, you guys have worked hard. You worked hard to get into Stanford academically. You worked hard to play at this level in the Pac-12. It feels good because you were able to do something hard. The things you appreciate most as a player, as a coach, as a human being are the things where you had to fight and to struggle to make something work.’ It’s only fitting to win that way tonight.”

For now, Stanford will be scoreboard-watching as it waits to see who will try their luck against in the Cardinal in Las Vegas this Wednesday, or potentially Thursday if the cards fall just right for a first-round Stanford bye. With eyes on an uncertain bid for March Madness, Dawkins’ squad will look to leave the desert the big winners in the bracketology jackpot. Count Coach among the rare few not looking at the big board with bated breath.

Quipped Dawkins, “I may be the only person in the world, but I promise you, I’m not paying attention to it”.

Stanford Can’t Rebuff Buffaloes, Fails to Seperate from Herd in Pac-12 Standings

DSC_0018 By Matthew Harrington

STANFORD, Calif. – That beeping sound you hear on Campus Drive isn’t the sign of construction and work trucks on Leland Stanford’s old stomping grounds; it’s the sound of the Stanford Cardinal backing into the Pac-12 and, possibly, NCAA tournament.

With a disappointing 59-56 loss to Colorado Wednesday night at Maples Pavilion on a missed game-tying shot at the buzzer, the Cardinal (18-11, 9-8 Pac-12) has now dropped three-straight games for the first time this season. The slump comes at an inopportune time as the season draws to its close and the selection committee reviews Stanford’s tournament credentials as a bubble team with an eagle-eye.

A tournament berth of in the air, Stanford entered play looking to avoid its first three-game losing streak all season after losses to Arizona State and Arizona last week. They ultimately couldn’t right the ship against Colorado (21-9, 10-7), finding themselves in foul trouble throughout Wednesday’s contest. Chasson Randle and Stefan Nastic finished the night with four infractions, while Dwight Powell finished the game watching from the bench with five personal fouls. Colorado made 17 free throws on 25 attempts, the same number of makes as Stanford had attempts.

“That’s very frustrating,” said Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins. “They shot more free throws than we did. We’re a team that usually gets to the line quite a bit. Unfortunately we didn’t get to the line as much tonight. They converted on a number of them. They made 17, we shot 17. That’s difficult in a three-point ballgame.”

Randle, despite the foul concerns, continued his strong down the stretch by sinking 9 from the field on 18 attempts, including 4-of-7 from beyond the arc for a game-high 24 points over 34 minutes. Josh Huestis came a point away from a double-double after pulling down a Stanford-leading 13 rebounds, two more than Josh Scott, Colorado’s top rebounder on the night. Scott also lead the Buffaloes with 17 points. Colorado won the battle of the boards 39 to 31.

“We’ve been out-rebounded the last couple games,” said Dawkins. “With our size and our front line that’s very disappointing. We challenge our guys. We have to do a much better job of rebounding the basketball.”

The two teams traded baskets and blows like prize fighters throughout the first, with neither side snatching a two-possession lead until Colorado’s Ben Mills hit a layup with 5:34 left in the half for a 22-17 edge. Stanford cut the lead to one with baskets from Powell and Randle but the Buffs outscored Stanford 11-7 over the final five minutes before the intermission.

“We were getting open looks,” reflected a dejected Randle on the Cardinal first-half. “We just needed someone to knock them down.”
The Stanford struggles in the first stemmed from poor shooting, as the Cardinal converted only 31 percent of its shots, including 1-for-9 from three-point range. Despite the shooting woes and Powell finding himself on the bench late in the period nursing three fouls, Stanford found itself fortunate to only be facing a five-point deficit at the half thanks to stout defensive work forcing seven Colorado turnovers.

On the poor shooting, Dawkins pointed at the defense first. “Overall, our defense needs to make sure if we’re not making shots, we need to make sure the other team’s not making them either.”

The Cardinal came back strong in the second half, holding the visitors to only 13 points while grabbing 17 of  its own over the first 11-plus minutes to cut it to a 46-45 Colorado advantage.

“Guys stepped it up in the second half defensively,” said Randle. “We did a really good job of bringing our effort and intensity, especially that second group that came in. We need more of that.”

The comeback was completed after a thunderous Stefan Nastic block on Xavier Johnson led to a Huestis bid for the lead at the other end. Huestis missed the shot, but Johnson fouled the forward on the attempt. Huestis hit one of two from the line to pull Stanford even 46-46 with 7:49 to go in the game. Johnson, who finished with 14 points, restored the Buffaloes lead on a jumper from the top of the key.

Red-hot Randle handed the home team its first lead of the half, 49-48, connecting on a trey, 3 of his 17 second-half points, with 4:50 remaining.

“We need more guys stepping up,” said Dawkins. “Chasson, offensively, has really stepped up and done what he has to do. We need more guys. It can’t just be one guy playing offensively. Our offense is built around a balanced attack so we need guys to step up and make plays.”

Colorado regained the lead and created some breathing room on three consecutive field goals, punctuated by a Xavier Talton trey to make it 55-51 with 130 ticks left on the game clock. Dwight Powell was then forced to the bench with his fifth foul on am offensive violation with just over two minutes to play. Powell watched as Randle pulled Stanford within two, his jumper finding the basket despite contact from Talton. Randle would convert the and-one play to make it a 55-54 Buffs lead with 1:12 left in the period. The Cardinal stifled Colorado with a shot clock violation with 45 seconds remaining but failed to take advantage. Colorado them hit four of six from the charity stripe down the stretch, setting up a Stanford a tying bid at 59 points aside. Randle’s three-pointer, potentially tipped on the way to the basket, fell just short of the rim as time expired.

The loss muddies up both the Pac-12 play-off picture and Stanford’s standing as a Big Dance bubble team (the Cardinal entered play in the no. 42 slot in RPI, a criteria used to determine the NCAA tournament field), what could be Stanford’s first appearance in six seasons under Dawkins. Of more concern on the Farm is where Stanford stands in the Pac-12 rankings. Stanford and Colorado entered play with identical 9-7 conference records, tied with Cal for fourth in the standings and a chance for a first-round conference tournament bye. Cal takes on Utah at home Wednesday night.

“I don’t keep up with that stuff at all,” said Dawkins when asked if he thought the loss hurt his team’s tournament standing. “We’re in a great conference. It’s so thick in our conference with competitive teams. Who knows what’s going to happen.”

Stanford continues its unusual stretch of facing unfamiliar conference foes late in conference play when Utah comes to Maples Saturday afternoon for an 11:30 am tip. The Cardinal will look to wrap up Pac-12 by avoiding a four-game losing skid on Senior Day before heading to Sin City for the conference tournament.

“That loss was very disappointing, coming home and having the crowd here,” said Randle. “It’s disappointing having a chance to get a first round bye. We have the opportunity Saturday, and we’re looking forward to that.”