Somewhere – between male drivers’ aversion to asking directions, to our nation’s intolerance of the metric system – sat Mike Montgomery’s feelings towards the Pac-10 conference tournament.
Monty said the league was better off without a postseason bracket. Both he and Lute Olson denounced its 2002 revival. It would interfere with the classroom, he argued. Montgomery saw a conference, with Stanford at the vanguard, elevate itself to unprecedented heights while the Pac-10 tournament sat in storage for a dozen years. It didn’t help that his two extended Pac-10 tourney runs – finalists at the Forum in 1989, champions 15 years later at the Staples Center – led up to early exits from the one tournament that actually matters.
But back when “Stanford basketball” and “postseason” were mutually exclusive, Montgomery actually had something to prove once the regular season gave way to conference tournament season. Two milestones were at stake when the Cardinal opened the Pac-10 bracket this week in 1988 against Oregon at the McKale Center.
In reaching the 20-win plateau for the first time since the 1942 national championship season, Stanford basketball earned its first postseason conference tournament victory. But before Todd Lichti scored a game-high 25 points and Greg Butler collected a double-double (19 points, 10 boards), the Cardinal overcome some early nervousness during the ESPN telecast.
“Get off your dead ass and play harder!” yelled Montgomery, his team trailing 28-20 in the first half. The sideline blast “sounded like it came over the loudspeaker,” Bryan McSweeney said afterwards.
Failure has a way of adding to urgency. A year earlier, Stanford exited the inaugural Pac-10 tournament almost as soon as it arrived, falling to Washington by an 86-71 margin. The only memorable moment from a Cardinal perspective occurred in the final seconds. A seldom-used senior guard named Charles Schwager tossed in a 10-footer for the last of his six career points. In Stanford basketball’s decades in the wilderness, this counted as a highlight.
Hoops finally, finally broke through in the 1987-1988 season, Montgomery’s second on The Farm. The Cardinal’s 11-7 Pac-10 mark set a school record for conference wins. A 46-year drought without a postseason berth ended with a trip to the NIT. Stanford went 12-3 in the regular season at home, with just five points – in white-knuckle losses to Santa Clara, Washington State and Oregon State – separating it from an undefeated season at Maples Pavilion.
A late-season stumble (a home defeat to the Beavers, followed by the annual screw-up at Pauley Pavilion) derailed Stanford’s hopes of finishing second to Arizona. The team responsible for the Wildcats’ lone conference loss was fresh in one coach’s mind on the eve of the Pac-10 tournament. “I like Stanford,” Lute Olson said. “Stanford played better than anybody we've played all year, better than Syracuse, Duke, etc.”
The Cardinal’s hopes of a tournament semifinal tilt against Arizona hinged on stopping Oregon’s Anthony Taylor. The Ducks’ top scoring threat made his points (23), but not so much during the decisive second half. McSweeney, while scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds of his own, held him to just 2-of-9 shooting after halftime.
Stanford made 20 of 30 shots from the floor in the second half. After letting the Ducks keep pace, the Card finally enjoyed something resembling breathing room with 13:46 to play. Howard Wright scored in the paint for two of his 17 points, and the scoreboard showed Stanford holding a 51-41 edge.
Oregon managed a brief rally, cutting the lead to 63-58 as the game approached the seven-minute mark. But a 10-0 Stanford run – coming on Butler’s three-point play, a Lichti 17-foot jumper, a Butler hoop from the baseline, a McSweeney foul shot and Wright dunk – put the lid on any thoughts of a Stanford collapse.
“When it gets bad, don’t make it worse,” Wright said.