The Cardinal shook off a lethal, tournament-quality foe in encouraging, rarely seen fashion. Johnny Dawkins' squad simply out-gunned a potent offense that was firing on all cylinders for most of the contest. In a game that featured a combined 27 bombs from downtown, Stanford prevailed thanks to the fact that it had just a little more firepower than the Redbirds. That accomplishment alone is a novelty worth writing home to mom about.
But it was the quality of the opponent that the Cardinal defeated that made the second-round NIT win a huge building block instead of a small consolation prize. Illinois State was a team firing on all cylinders, one that had gotten off to a slow start this season because of its youth (no seniors) and because of the fact that it took a couple of months for Tim Jankovich's hodgepodge of youngsters and JuCo transfers to mesh.
And while it did take a while, they gelled into something scary.
As a result, Stanford didn't welcome the Redbirds team that was tripped up by Fresno State to begin the year. It faced a hardened Illinois State squad that had nearly knocked off Creighton to earn a last-second berth into the Big Dance and had buried 17 three pointers in its opening round NIT win at Ole Miss.
"That was the best shooting team we have played this season," Dawkins said. "I had a hard time believing my eyes seeing them go [17-23] on TV, and then they started doing it again tonight, so we really had to dig in."
Those in attendance at Maples Pavilion had a hard time believing that Stanford could win at the nine-minute mark in the second half. The Redbirds, who finished the game with 15 treys, had built an 11-point lead with a devastating exhibition from behind the arc. They flaunted their cold-blooded offense, a unit that spread out around center Jackie Carmichael, who featured an smooth turnaround jumper in the paint. Whenever the Cardinal would collapse on the big man with a double team inside, the Redbirds sniffed out the resulting open man like a pack of wolves and delivered the ball to him with dizzying efficiency on the perimeter.
Swish. Nothing but net. Cha-ching. Money. Time out, Johnny.
There seemed to be no stopping these guys. Even when Stanford defenders rotated in time, the diminutive 5-foot-9 freshman Nic Moore delivered the Palo Alto punch to the stomach, a 24-foot rainbow that somehow found the bottom of the net.
Thankfully for the Cardinal, they had a small guy of their own who was burying impossible shots, too. Aaron Bright went toe-to-toe with the Redbirds' marksmen, clutching up at 6-7 from three point range in a 29-point performance that kept giving Stanford's defense extra chances to figure Illinois State out.
Late in the game, the Cardinal finally obliged Bright's brilliant performance. Dawkins employed a higher pressure defense when Stanford faced its largest deficit, hoping to make the Redbirds work harder and "get their legs tired so they would start finally missing those threes."
The plan worked to perfection: in a six-possession stretch near the five-minute mark, Illinois State turned the ball over five times. Their long-distance shots started rimming out, and Carmichael got into serious foul trouble on the inside. Stanford roared back to force overtime, where the Cardinal took control of the game.
"For me, the basket was the size of the ocean," Bright said.
That's what momentum feels like, and the Cardinal earned that push down the stretch in a way that had been foreign to this team so far this season. That 25.4 percent shooting afternoon against Arizona finally seemed a universe away.
The Cardinal finished 12-20 from three-point range, meaning that their 60 percent mark bested the sharpshooting Redbirds' 50 percent clip from downtown. Most of that performance, of course, can be credited to Bright, and Dawkins said that he "had not seen many players in the country this year play better than Aaron Bright tonight."
But Stanford's offensive prowess also came courtesy of other youngsters. Sophomore Dwight Powell posted an impressive 18-point, inside-out effort. Freshman Chasson Randle dumped in 19, including the game's pivotal shot in overtime.
This whole NIT thing is turning out to be quite the deal for Stanford basketball. Just one game after Anthony Brown led the way with a breakout performance, three more key pieces of the Cardinal's future made tremendous strides Monday. The next step is for Brown and Powell to pack on some muscle so that they can make their impressive performances more consistent next season.
For now, though, the future is Wednesday. That's when Stanford has a chance to earn another tournament-quality win against an excellent Nevada team at Maples Pavilion. A large crowd of fans is expected to make its way across Donner Pass from Reno for the game, so it's sure to be an electric atmosphere as the Cardinal try to punch their ticket to Madison Square Garden.
It's strange to utter these words, but this exciting NIT run actually means a lot to Stanford here in 2012.
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