Battered But Unblemished

It is difficult to define this game, which justly pushed Stanford closer to the brink of defeat than any other game this year. Still, the contest concluded with a shocking string of improbable events, both lucky and lamentable. Matt Lottich's buzzer beater heave to turn a one-point loss into a 63-61 win is something to treasure. A rollercoater ride so wild, this contest could have only played out in the Palouse...

The Josh Childress offensive rebound putback in Tempe was a display of desire and explosive athleticism.  The comeback from 19 down in Eugene was a gritty and gutty never-say-die display in the conference's most hostile environment.  The pair of steals and subsequent three-pointers in the final 40 seconds of the Arizona game at Maples was the crown clutch comeback of this season, with the most surprise and buzzer-beating drama seen in any Stanford game in years.

But Thursday night in the cold and wintery Paulouse, a shocking storm erupted inside Beaseley Coliseum that sent more than 8,000 fans scurrying out into the elements.  In the most mind-numbing chain of end-game events yet in this unparalleled season of splendor and surprise, Stanford ripped off a new superlative in incomparable conclusions.  Cardinalmaniacs™ may have thought they saw this season's most amazing finish four weeks ago when Nick Robinson knocked down a 35-foot running jumper as time expired to cap a last-minute comeback against their premier rivals, the Arizona Wildcats, but that finish has nothing on this Cougar crusher.  In the Maples Miracle game, Stanford had tied the game with 23 seconds to go and had a strong shot at overtime.  By contrast, Stanford trailed Washington State on this night by five points when the clock reached 0:23 left in the game.

Cardinal spirits had already been crushed when Stanford blew its chances in subsequent sequences.  After making a defensive error that handed Marcus Moore a wide-open three-pointer with two minutes to go in the game, Stanford found a one-point game stretched to four and time ticking away.  Possessions were long and hard-fought throughout the contest, with WSU burning 25 to 30 seconds off the clock on every possession, and their stifling defense precluded all but a rare few quick and easy looks for the Card.  Matt Lottich, who had not hit a jump shot in 21 minutes, threw up an airball.  Childress had to foul on the defensive rebound, and Stanford continued to foul three more times semi-intentionally as Mike Montgomery saw that the remaining 1:40 would not be enough for this comeback at the current pace of each team's offense.

WSU hit both free throws once the fouls reached the bonus, and with a six-point deficit at 1:20 to go, Chris Hernandez took the initiative and drove the lane for a lay-up attempt against a collapsing interior defense.  His running attempt came high off the glass, and Matt Haryasz could not pull down the rebound.  Childress was forced to commit his fifth foul, taking Stanford's most dynamic scoring threat off the floor while putting the Cougars on the free throw line.

A breath of life was whispered into the Cardinal bench when Jeff Varem missed the front end of the one-and-one, and Hernandez again raced into the heart of WSU's defense, this time drawing a foul.  The 91.5% free throw shooter knocked both down to close the gap to four points, but Stanford again had to foul and put the Cougs on the line with 1:08 to go.  Incredibly, Chris Schlatter missed the front end of his free throw bonus, and Stanford now had a real opportunity to close the game to one possession with almost a minute on the clock.  But Lottich's floating jumper came off the front rim, and Haryasz twice missed rebounding opportunities, the second time knocking the ball out of bounds.

A quick foul put Marcus Moore on the stripe, and he hit both attempts to stretch the game once again to six points.  Stanford was content to get a high percentage look inside as a couple of quick passes found Haryasz under the hoop for a lay-in with 43.7 seconds left in the game.  Washington State "Couged it" by passing the ball out of bounds on the ensuing inbound play, which gave Stanford the ball back with no real time pulled off the clock.  Nick Robinson found a lay-in under the basket off a Hernandez feed that was scored on a goaltending call.  A two-point game with 39.1 to go was very doable, and hopes were rising across the Cardinal Nation.

Even better, Shami Gill missed the second of his two free throws two seconds later, which left the margin at three points with a chance to tie on Stanford's next possession.  But continuing the comedy of errors for the Card, Hernandez dribbled into traffic and had the ball knocked off his knee and out of bounds.  Dan Grunfeld fouled Varem on the next play to stop the clock, and the Coug calmly stroked both attempts with 25.3 left in the game to go up five.

Stanford had endured a stretch of 10 minutes in the second half with just one field goal, and they had just squandered a set of gift-wrapped opportunities for their comeback bid.  Missed shots, turnovers and failed rebounds left a nation's eyes glued to the certain upset as Stanford raced down the floor for a surely meaningless survival bid.  Down five and badly needing some quick-fix perimeter buckets, Hernandez drove to the basket once again, and three WSU defenders collapsed on him.  The Stanford point guard dished to a wide-open Grunfeld in the right corner, who had his feet set and no defender to threaten his shot.  Varem was the man who was supposed to defend the sophomore shooter, but he had come out at Hernandez instead.  The Cougar defender bolted out to the wing and made an utterly futile lunge from 10 feet away.  Minute Bol could not have blocked Grunfeld's shot from that distance, but the biggest mistake Varem made came after the shot.  He turned his body back toward the goal to watch the shot go down, and continued to let his body back into and through Grunfeld.

The shot was true, and the whistle then blew.  Grunfeld had a chance for a four-point play with 17.4 seconds left in the game.  He stroked the free throw that completely changed the landscape for the remainder of the game.  Had WSU held a two-point lead, they could have still extended their lead back to two possessions with their pair of free throws to come, but now Stanford was in a position to possibly tie in the final seconds even if two points were tacked onto the narrow one-point margin.

Overtime was possible once again, but before any time could run off the clock, events would take yet another ridiculous an unexpected turn.  Moore ran the baseline to inbound the ball after a Stanford timeout, but he failed to get rid of the rock within five seconds.  The endline official blew his whistle as WSU players protested that Moore had attempted to call a timeout, however when the referee had made his fifth hand sweep to count off the final second, Moore had the ball hoisted over his head with both hands.  Only after that did he bring the ball down to his hip and attempt to call for stoppage.  By then, it was after the five seconds and too late.

Stanford now was in the driver's seat.  With that 17.4 still on the clock and the ball under WSU's basket, the Card had ample time to setup a game-winning look at the basket, or two.  They trailed by just one point and needed any field goal or trip to the free throw line.  Hernandez took the ball at the top with 13 seconds to go and looked to start the offense, but Moore came out on him and put two hands up in the Stanford ballhandler's chest.  Hernandez tried to take the ball behind his back but found himself off-balance and falling backward.  He and Lottich both went for the ensuing loose ball, which squirted back between Lottich's legs.  Haryasz and Lottich both dove for the ball, and it was the Stanford senior who pulled it back to him with one hand, and then made a pass to Nick Robinson while sitting on the ground.

Robinson had the ball 12 feet from the basket with five seconds left in the game, and offense was replaced by chaos.  The famed hero from the Maples Miracle put the ball on the floor and dribbled away from the goal.  He stopped at 18 feet and turned around with three seconds left for what would have been an open jumper and Stanford's one and only good look at the basket.  The reticent redshirt junior had been invisible all game on offense, taking just one attempt from the field in the first 39 minutes of the game.  He simply had not offensive impulse on this night, and that looked for a split second to be a death knell for Stanford's last chance to win the game.

Robinson turned back away from the rim after passing up the shot and made a short underhanded toss to Lottich, who was back up off the ground and standing 24 feet from Stanford's target.  The senior shooting guard, with a polar opposite offensive instinct, quickly went up and heaved a shotput attempt with 1.9 seconds on the clock.  WSU junior guard Thomas Kelati, who had nailed two killer treys of his own in the game, put one hand squarely in the chest of Lottich and pushed on the shooter as he elevated for the desperation heave, but it would not matter.

The ball touched nothing but the bottom of the net, and the clock hit 0:00 as the ball hit the parquet floor of Friel Court.  Stanford's bench players were all already standing, and it took them no time at all to rush to Lottich and smother him in celebration.  A stunned crowd stood in a silent stupor as they attempted to piece together how this fumbling team of fame had pulled off the unthinkable.

"I got a good look," says the ever-confident Lottich on his off-balance game-winner.

Down five.  Less than 20 seconds to go.  Against a nearly perfect WSU second half that had held Stanford to just eight field goals in the first 19 minutes.  On the heels of so many Stanford mistakes and such a disheartening stretch of poor play.  It was beyond unexpected or improbable.  It was a concluding script that could only be deemed impossible, if you had not watched it with your own eyes.

"We have to treat it like a loss,'' says Mike Montgomery about the game in an effort to detach his team from the buzzer-beating exhilaration of victory.  "We have to learn our lessons.''

Indeed, their are pitfalls a-plenty you will find when you break down the tape of this game and look at the first 39 and a half minutes.  Stanford had strong offensive surges twice in the game, but their execution was horrific the remainder of the contest on both ends of the floor.

The game started on a positive enough note, with the #1-ranked Cardinal rattling off a 19-8 run on the backs of three players.  Rob Little got things going with a nifty move against a double team six feet from the basket that resulted in a short jumper off the glass.  Junior classmate Josh Childress scored seven of Stanford's next nine points with a pair of free throws, a spot-up corner three and an alley-oop dunk.   The assist on that last score came from Little at 20 feet, just one possession after the starting center had scored his second basket of the game on a turnaround hook off the glass.

The backcourt had yet to score in the game, but Lottich rectified that imbalance in a hurry as he rattled off eight straight points on three quick-release jumpers from the perimeter.  The first and third came outside the arc, while the second field goal was a pull-up jumper just behind the free throw line.

But Stanford managed just three more field goals in the final 12-plus minutes of the half, with each of Childress, Little and Lottich scoring once.  The offense stuttered against the patient Washington State defense, with a plethora of turnovers and mental mistakes.  The crown jewel of the junkfest was a missed dunk by Joe Kirchofer on possibly Stanford's best executed play of the half.  Haryasz held the ball with his back to the basket on the free throw line, a defender behind him and Moore a few feet away on the perimeter.  With Moore's attention focused on him, Haryasz found a streaking Hernandez with a nice bounce pass as he attacked the basket uncontested.  Gill was defending Kirchofer in the low post and had to step out on Hernandez, which resulted in a clean pass to the fifth-year senior center all alone under the hoop.  Kirchofer went up but threw the ball over the rim in a singularly deflating misfire.

On the defensive end, Stanford allowed Washington State too many offensive rebounds and second chance looks at the basket.  The Cougars were content to shoot three-pointers all game long, and Mike Montgomery was willing to play his zone defense when he could in both halves.  But the top-ranked Cardinal consistently looked too slow to the ball, as the hometown team hustled for loose balls that Stanford has characteristically claimed throughout the season.

Stanford was left to cling to a tenuous three-point lead at the half, 29-26, but they scarcely led in the second stanza.  They had held a lead since the Little-to-Childress alley-oop play, at 11-10, but the game was quickly tied in the opening minutes of the second half at 31 when Marcus Moore made one of two free throws.  The Palouse pulse was elevated by the tie, and they erupted when Verum slammed home an uncontested dunk the next possession.  Stanford's discombobulated defense let Verum slide free behind them on the baseline, and Moore made an acrobatic pass in the air to find him racing toward the basket.

Lottich scored an easy lay-up of his own to tie the game at 33, when Little made a nifty baseline wrap-around pass to find his senior teammate.  But WSU was just beginning a hot-shooting streak of four straight makes to pull away in the game.  The Cardinal zone defense left Schlatter open on the wing for a three-pointer to return the lead to the Cougas at 36-33.  The next possession saw Schlatter even more open at the top of the circle, giving WSU their biggest lead of the game at six points.

Montgomery called a timeout and afterward saw Stanford's single second half scoring surge, all from Rob Little.  Fresh out of the timeout, Lottich found Little with a lob entry pass that finished in a dunk.  Little scored on his next two attempts from the field a couple minutes later - the first was an offensive rebound dunk off a missed Hernandez driving layup; the second was a lay-in off a Hernandez inlet pass that beautifully led Little to the hoop.

The 6'9" junior center was the only threatening offensive weapon to produce in both halves of the game.  He hit seven of his first nine shots in the game, including a 4-of-4 stretch to start the second half.  Cardinalmaniacs™ everywhere were stunned to see Little pulled at the 8:33 mark and not return until the final seconds of action in the game.  He was clicking on offense, but Montgomery yanked him after he started to tire.  Little was not within 10 feet on a sequence of several rebounds, and he was whistled for a three-second call in the lane.  The smaller WSU post players were taking him to the perimeter and running the big man ragged.

In Little's absence, the offense struggled.  A one-point deficit grew to six a Stanford sleep-walked through their sets.  Their sole field goal after Little went to the bench, before the final minute of heroics, came on a Hernandez driving layup, the first after many unsuccessful attempts in the lane.  The Card's only apparent chance to survive would come at the free throw line, where they scored seven of their nine points in a 10-minute stretch.  Stanford hit 14-of-16 from the charity stripe on the evening, but it felt like two crucial misses came in that stretch.  Down four points and inside the final media timeout, Haryasz went to the line and bricked the front end of a one-and-one bonus.  A minute later, Childress got to the stripe and missed the back end of two attempts.

Despite a miraculous finish, this game stung in the locker room like a loss.  If the benefit of an 'L' on Stanford's record this year is supposed to benefit the team for its wake-up value, this near-miss should accomplish just that.  Only a set of rather flukish events in the final moments of the contest reversed the scoreboard final tally, handing Stanford its 26th win of the year and maintaining their unbeaten record.  Since the expansion of the conference to 10 teams in 1978, only one team has ever strung together 26 straight victories, and that was achieved by Oregon State 23 years ago.  It is a remarkable accomplishment, and there is some value in the team's unrelenting spirit and fight.  When they face peril in the postseason, they will have the proven confidence that they have come back from the deepest of holes before.  But Saturday's battle in Seattle against second place Washington will be the litmus test for how this club handles such a loss-worthy performance and its lessons.

The Huskies are riding high and have won 11 of their last 12 conference games.  They play an aggressive and up-tempo game that pushes on both ends of the floor, almost the polar opposite of what Washington State did this night.  The Card need great focus to manage the radical shift in styles between these two opponents, and they have to do it on the road on the heels of what should have been a bone-jarring loss.

Which team emerges at Hec Edmundson Pavilion will tell us volumes about how deep this storied Stanford squad can go in the postseason.  It may be the defining game of the season, for far more than the statistical grandeur that hangs in the balance for the first 18-0 perfect Pac-10 season ever.

Complete game box score

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