TWISH: Card's Close Call with UMass Machine

Has Stanford basketball really come to this, where any win this season won’t nearly equal the importance of a loss from 19 years ago this week? In a word, yes. Don’t shoot the messenger, in this case, This Week in Stanford History.

March 16, 1996: UMass 79, Stanford 74

It happened. Almost. Before owning expectations of conference titles and No. 1 seeds, Stanford basketball had to first earn national respect in smaller steps. A huge leap in that regard occurred in the 1996 NCAA tournament’s second round, when the Cardinal pushed the nation’s top-ranked team to the brink.

Before further review ensued, This Week in Stanford History’s initial memories of the game were limited to the final seconds, when the 32-1 Minutemen – paced by Marcus Camby and head coach John Calipari – prevailed only after Pete Sauer’s efforts to tie the score from three-point range went off target.

But this game was so much more. What led up to that moment stands as a milestone, one of the finest efforts in the Cardinal’s star-crossed NCAA tournament history.

“It looked like we were going to run away but they did not stop, and Brevin Knight was unbelievable,” Calipari said in his postgame comments. “We had no answers.” The No. 9-seeded Cardinal led UMass by four points (26-22) late in the second half. Fearless Stanford roared back after the Minutemen, despite Camby’s foul trouble, extended their lead to 13 points with seven minutes remaining at the Civic Center in Providence, R.I.

The game doubled as a 40-minute Brevin Knight highlight reel. The junior point guard collected a game-high 27 points to go alongside nine assists and just two turnovers. A year previously in the second round against UMass, Stanford fell behind early and never recovered in a 75-53 shellacking. In the span of a year, the Card was no longer satisfied with simply winning a tournament game. No player better personified that turnaround – from being overjoyed at beating UNC-Charlotte, to nearly upsetting the country’s top team and best player – than Knight.

He “routinely made any defender unlucky enough to square up against him look like his feet were buried in cement,” The Stanford Daily wrote. That the Cardinal had a chance despite missing 15 of its 20 three-point attempts remains a tribute to Knight’s brilliance. The next marquee point guard UMass faced was Allen Iverson in the regional final. Georgetown lost by 24 points.

The late Sauer’s combination of size and shooting skill earned him space in veteran-heavy Stanford’s rotation that year. He responded with six straight points in the second half against UMass, scoring 11 key points off the bench while making five of his first six attempts leading up to his fateful, last-second shot.

The Minutemen, even with Camby on the bench with three fouls, scored on eight of their first nine second-half possessions. Their lead stood at 66-53 before Stanford responded with a 21-9 run.

For much of the game, Dion Cross regressed to the levels of his February shooting slump, making just one of his first eight attempts from three-point-range. But the senior drained all seven three-pointers against Arizona ten days earlier, a conference record he still shares with three others. The standout -- who was No.1 in Stanford history with 241 three-point baskets until Chasson Randle surpassed him earlier this season -- emerged with 52.7 ticks to play. That’s when he buried one last three-ball to move Stanford within a point at 75-74.

For most of that season, it seemed the Cardinal wouldn’t be facing such odds come tournament time. The squad spent eight weeks in the AP Top 25. Dubious streaks ended, as in 15 straight losses to Arizona and nine straight defeats to UCLA. Stanford (20-7, 12-6 in the regular season) swept Lute Olson’s Wildcats for the first time (it wouldn’t equal that feat again until his last season in Tuscon.) A home victory against the Bruins on Feb. 10 had the Cardinal sitting at No. 20 in the country.

But three losses in Stanford’s next five games weighed heavily on the selection committee’s minds. So it appeared on Selection Sunday, when the Cardinal learned its hopes again lay three time zones away. “I would be less than honest to say that we weren't a little disappointed,” said Mike Montgomery, who dropped three of his first four NCAA tournament tilts spanning from Greensboro, N.C., to Cincinnati, to Albany, N.Y.

The group took the slight in stride. Seniors Cross, Darren Allaway, David Habour and Andy Poppink combined to play in 451 games for Stanford, starting 279. They helped the Cardinal withstand a determined Bradley side in round one before the rematch against Camby and Co. came down to the last few possessions.

That year’s Naismith Award winner managed 20 points, eight board and seven blocks against the Cardinal. And just when it appeared the UMass would turn into George Costanza grabbing an ill-fated nap, Coach Cal’s crew rose up.

UMass chose not to call timeout after the Cross bomb. Camby drew enough attention to spring Donta Bright, whose jumper from the foul line with 21 ticks left put Stanford in a three-point hole. That left the Cardinal no margin for error on its ensuing trip, where Sauer found an open look before rushing his shot.

“It was really designed to be a 12 or 15-foot shot,” he said. “But with time running out, we needed a 3-pointer so I backpedaled out and I guess I wasn’t really set.”

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