It's the normal starting lineup as we start the second, though Dwight Powell fills in after Josh Owens picks up his third foul a minute in. The half starts with two Jarrett Mann buckets, the first a breakaway off an Andrew Zimmermann steal. Minnesota fans are really miffed with the refs – well, as much as Minnesotans can be upset about anything – partially because they feel the game slipping away from them and need to channel their anger somewhere, but partially because they have a point. An obvious blocking foul on Owens initially goes uncalled, until the official from the far sideline comes rushing in to overrule the guy two feet from the action on the baseline. Anyway, Stanford's being the aggressor tonight, it stands to reason that they are going to get the 50/50 calls.
The whistles are all window dressing, however, as it's all Stanford early in the second half. Minnesota has to feel this one starting to slip away from them.
Are the first five minutes of the second half are the most important five minutes of the game, as the adage goes? I'm agnostic, but I do know that Stanford just won the stretch by an 11-2 margin and now leads by 15. The body language in the two teams' huddles and on each squad's bench is equally revealing. We're playing like it's the NCAA Championships, while Minnesota has let the scoreboard get to them.
All told then, between today's effort and the raw effort on full display in the games leading to this point, I think Johnny Dawkins, and the team as a whole, have proven a lot this tournament. Looking ahead, you have to like the potential of the six-man class of rising juniors. The offense has to come around eventually (right?), so as long as the defense stays at this high level – watch out.
16-minute mark: Stanford 42, Minnesota 27
It's do or die time for the Gophers, who fall behind by as many as 16. The Minnesota crowd realizes this and has taken it up a notch, trying to rally their team. Minnesota's players seem to sense the urgency too and appear to have stepped up their game as well. However, the Gophers can do no better than tread water, in large part because both teams are getting whistled left and right. Minnesota has eight fouls on the half, while Stanford has six.
I really like the way the players pick each other up. Sitting courtside, I can see Josh Huestis put a finger to his lips and hear him hush Aaron Bright. "Be quiet," Huestis commands, after Bright and the man driving at him are called for a rare double foul. As we come out of the break, Minnesota's Rodney Williams has been knocked out of the game, at least temporarily, on a monster collision with Powell. Here too the two players are each whistled, this time for offsetting technicals, but as long as he's not looking to injure, you have to like the aggression Powell and the Cardinal are showing tonight.
12-minute mark: Stanford 45, Minnesota 30
Randle puts in a layup off yet another Stanford steal, and then draws an off-ball offensive foul. With Stanford up by 18 and under 11 minutes to go, Coach Dawkins has to be itching to put in his deep bench, and should the margin stand up for another, say, five minutes, I'm totally on board. Overheard on press row: "It was 21-17 [Minnesota] in this game, and then Minnesota stopped scoring." Sure enough, it's been a 32-10 run since that high-water mark for the Gophers. Raise your hand if you saw this coming.
A scary moment as Powell goes to the ground hard and is grimacing in obvious pain as he comes up rubbing his leg. He substitutes himself out and heads off court, presumably for medical attention.
On the floor, the carnage keeps coming. Bright hits a three, while Randle hits two more as Stanford pushes the margin as far as 25. Kevin Danna and I express our disbelief via Google Chat in slightly colorful language, but hey, long-suffering Stanford fans have earned this one too. We're minutes away from celebrating a championship.
Eight-minute mark: Stanford 60, Minnesota 37
Note that Minnesota has scored all of 12 points through the first 13:30 of the half, though a three finally puts them at the 40-point mark. We have nine steals and four blocks on the day, and the Gophers are shooting just 34 percent overall and 23 percent deep, with 18 turnovers to their name. The seniors are getting their due, with Owens, Zimmermann and Mann each out there and seemingly scoring at will, as Minnesota has kind of conceded this one. The lead is now 30 with shots continuing to fall from all corners of the court. Hard to imagine a better advertisement for the program than this game in this arena on ESPN.
Time to vote for the All-Tournament team. I won't kiss and tell, but suffice it to say Stanford wasn't underrepresented.
Four-minute mark: Stanford 70, Minnesota 40
Though Stanford has been a little sloppy with the ball, they have shot really well this game. They're 28-of-52 overall, 6-of-12 deep and 8-of-11 from the line with three minutes left. We've also forced 20 turnovers and counting in, arguably, our best game of the year. (Also nominated: our blowout wins over Colorado and the Senior Day win over California.) Minnesota still has two starters in (and two others have fouled out), so the Gophers may chip into the final margin a little bit, but make no mistake, Stanford is the NIT champion! The fans sing "Na na na na (2x), hey, hey, hey, goodbye" to the Gophers and that's all she wrote.
Final: Stanford 75, Minnesota 51
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Your Most Outstanding Player of the NIT Tournament is Aaron Bright. That's where I slotted him, and the Stanford crowd is feeling the love too, as chants of "Aar-on Bright" ring out. Terrence Ross (Washington), Rodney Williams (Minnesota), Andre Hollins (Minnesota) and Josh Owens (Stanford) round out the All-Tournament team. Dawkins and Bright are interviewed on ESPN, the team receives championship watches and tee shirts. "New York, New York" plays out as the team mugs it up for the cameras and starts cutting down the nets. It's a happy ending here in New York.
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