For a game that had already been jam-packed with 39-plus minutes of fantastic highlights and rollercoaster drama, we thought the emotional peak came with 23 seconds left in the game. Stanford engineered a miracle in the previous 20 seconds to come back from four down and tie the game that had been theirs for the first 35 minutes of play. The Cardinal had done the unthinkable - to tie the game up and have even a chance at overtime.
What happened instead was as unpredictable as any series in the history of Maples Pavilion.
Arizona had the ball with 22.3 seconds left in the game. The game was tied at 77, just the second tie since 0-0, and the shot clock was off. There was little question the #12 ranked Wildcats would have the last chance to score and win the ballgame, and the added wrinkle was that Stanford had a foul to give. This final possession was going to the wire, and every Cardinalmaniac in the country was praying for overtime. But the way Arizona had been scoring in the second half, at a clip better than 60%, both inside and out, 22.3 seconds seemed like an eternity to keep the Cats from getting a bucket or trip to the free throw line.
Salim Stoudamire, not only the team's best free throw shooter but also their hottest offensive player in this game with 24 points, handled the ball in the final seconds and drove toward the top of the key with Matt Lottich on his hip. He was headed toward a Channing Frye screen, either to free him space for a look at the basket or to set up a pick-and-roll. Rob Little stepped out to stop the driving Arizona guard, and Nick Robinson attacked as well. Stoudamire had his back to the basket and started to spin around, when Lottich poked the ball away and then stumbling forward pushed it to Robinson. With just under three seconds in the game, Robinson had the ball 70 feet from the basket.
"Matt Lottich was playing really good defense on Salim," Robinson describes. "The ball was loose - I'm not sure how - and when I got it I saw there were two seconds left. I just turned around and went straight to the basket and let it fly."
The long-legged Robinson needed just four strides to reach midcourt, and he still had a little more than a second on the clock. Two more strides brought him within 35 feet of the basket. With 0.7 seconds on the clock, he pushed off one foot and tossed up a running jumper.
"When I let it go, it felt really good," Robinson recalls.
"I was just glad to think we were going to overtime - to be honest," says head coach Mike Montgomery of his reaction to the steal. "Then when I saw the ball released, I thought it had a chance."
The ball was out of his hands with 0.3 seconds still remaining, and the buzzer sounded with the ball in the air. In the blink of an eye, the packed Maples crowded had realized that Stanford had gone from a position of dodging defeat to just maybe winning at the buzzer. The ball was true and went straight down, without so much as a bounce or rattle.
"There weren't a lot of coaching thoughts in my head," Montgomery admits about the sequence when asked if he wanted a timeout instead of the desperation heave. "The only thing going through my head was just 'wow'."
Robinson was already falling to the ground after he released the shot. By the time it reached the basket, he was already on his backside. The entire Stanford bench was standing on their feet, and when the ball made its dramatic and fateful "swoosh," pandemonium broke loose. Players erupted off the bench with some of their best unofficial vertical leaps of their lifetimes. Matt Lottich made a line straight for Robinson and immediately dove on him. Teammates from the court and the bench joined the dog pile. Even the injured Justin Davis was half-leaping, half-shuffling his way toward the scene. The Sixth Man section descended on the pile as soon as it started, and the entire place was on fire.
Stanford had scored seven unanswered points in the final 44 seconds of the game, with two steals, two three-pointers, no fouls and one win for the ages.
"I'm starting to think this group might be something special," an honest and emotional Mike Montgomery delivered after the game. "They gave us everything they had - shot the ball and defended. In the second half, [Arizona] was spectacular... We couldn't guard them and we couldn't run our offense."
"They shot 60% in the second half," the coach continues. "We just could not stop them. Stoudamire in particular - hitting those floaters."
The win not only keeps alive Stanford's undefeated season, which now at 20-0 ties the same mark set by the 2000-01 team that holds the best ever start and winning streak in school history, but it also ends a four-year losing streak against Arizona at Maples Pavilion. Though the Cardinal have an absolutely incredible four-game winning streak running down at Tucson, taking the Cats in Palo Alto has been very difficult. Some of the losses have been as emotionally devastating as this win is exhilirating, and that fact is not lost on Montgomery.
"In the course of our rivalry with Arizona, they've beaten us some times that have just torn our hearts out," Montgomery admits. "This has to be that way for them... Frankly, [the win] meant a lot to me. We haven't been able to beat them here lately, and I didn't want to answer that question any more. I'm glad we got one."
Lute Olson did indeed look like a man who had his heart torn out. He spoke softly afterward, with a glazed look of both pain and disbelief.
"It's just a difficult game to sit up here and talk about what might have been," he said in the post-game press conference. "We just really messed it up."
Arizona had all the momentum in the world when they made a 14-0 run starting at the 10-minute mark of the second half that turned a nine-point Stanford lead into a shocking five-point Arizona advantage. The Cardinal had led the entire game, until Arizona's 6'11" super center Channing Frye heaved a three-pointer that rattled off the back iron, high off the back board and up to the shot clock, then front rim, back rim and front rim. That trey with 4:42 left in the game gave the Cats a 70-67 lead, and it came on against perhaps Stanford's best defensive series during the run - shot in desperation with just a couple seconds left on the shot clock.
The next possession, Frye again hurt the #2 ranked Card when he grabbed an offensive rebound and slammed it home.
After a game's worth of leads and cushion, Stanford suddenly trailed by five. They were visibly nervous on offense, with no player looking to shoot and each one tentatively passing the ball.
"Maybe at one point they were fearful of losing," Montgomery comments. "We stopped making our cuts and running our offense."
Though there were problems on offense, something had to happen to stop the white-hot Wildcats on the other end of the floor. The good news was that Josh Childress made a slashing drive to the basket from the perimeter that scored a lay-up and finally ended the Arizona run. The teams traded baskets and then hit the final media timeout. With less than three minutes to go and down three points, Stanford went to their zone defense. The visitors managed just one basket the rest of the way.
"We had been setting on-ball screens and I thought we attacked them pretty well," Olson said of their second half scoring run. "Then Mike made some good adjustments. They zoned and slowed us down."
Stanford got a key stop and with now under two minutes they raced the other direction. Nick Robinson, who had been completely absent on offense the first 38 minutes of the game with just three points, blew by a lead-footed Hassan Adams and scored a lay-up that narrowed the gap to a single point.
The game was back on almost even ground, and the Wildcats looked lost on offense the next possession. They could not find any openings against the zone, and finally Stoudamire launched a 24-foot bomb from the top of the arc that struck like a dagger through the Cardinal Nation's collective heart. There were just two seconds left on the shot clock - so close to a key stop. And now there was less than a minute to go in the game.
Stanford was down four, and Arizona had fouls to give. Matt Lottich put up a three-pointer that missed, but Josh Childress grabbed his 10th rebound of the game on the backside and was fouled as he went back up.
With 44.3 to go in the game, these two free throws were critical. Stanford was going to need a couple more baskets if he could not convert both, assuming Arizona would score from the field or free throw line again. Childress short-armed the first attempt, which crushed spirits throughout the pavilion. Montgomery realized they could not play 35 seconds of defense if they were about to trail by three or four points after the second attempt, so he called a timeout.
"We hadn't applied pressure all game in the full court," Chris Hernandez notes. "That can change things when you haven't seen it and aren't used to it."
It worked. Stanford almost stole the ball right off the inbounds play when Childress tied it up, but no whistle blew and Arizona moved it across halfcourt. Three Stanford players were down on the ground and Arizona had a four-on-two advantage, but they wanted to run clock and held back. That was a costly mistake. Lottich caught back up with Stoudamire and forced him to turn back toward midcourt. Then Hernandez came over to pressure, which forced Stoudamire to pass to freshman point guard Mutafa Shakur.
But the pass was a little behind halfcourt, so Shakur had to leap and deflect the ball back to avoid a backcourt violation. That left the ball free up in the air, and Lottich lept over Stoudamire to swat it. Suddenly Stanford had a three-on-one break, but Lottich had to go toward the sideline to get the ball. He was still stumbling when he grabbed it and passed it backward. The transition advantage was lost as Arizona defenders raced back, but Stanford moved the ball around the perimeter and found an open Childress in the corner. Two feet behind the arc, he set and shot. The ball rattled in and tied the game, setting up the famous final 22.3 seconds.
Though it will be forgotten, Stanford had a superb first half of play that gave the Cardinal enough of a cushion to endure the 14-0 run. Rob Little was a monster and delivered a huge 12 points and six rebounds in the opening stanza. Matt Lottich ripped off eight of Stanford's first 19 points, including a pair of three-point bombs. Chris Hernandez continued his offensive aggression from last Saturday's famed Oregon comeback, driving the lane and shooting open jumpers; he matched Little with 12 first half points.
Stanford led by as many as 13 in the first half, and were up 12 before a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Stoudamire closed it to nine. Arizona continued that momentum by opening the second half on a 7-0 run to narrow the gap to two points, but then the Cardinal answered with a 15-6 run. Hernandez was the biggest lift, hitting back-to-back three-point shots, and Childress capped it off with a trey of his own.
Lute Olson, unfortunately, did not handle this loss well. His complaints started with the late Childress offensive rebound that came off a Lottich missed three-pointer, which resulted in a foul and two Stanford free throws inside the final minute.
"We don't have helicopters than can go up in the air and then move forward five feet like that," the irate Arizona coach notes with great hyperbole. "They pushed really hard on an offensive rebound. I think everyone saw that. That part is very disappointing, given how obvious it was."
Hardly obvious, Childress went up for the rebound with both hands while Andre Iguodala was crouched low trying to block out the 6'8" forward. As both went up, Childress had both arms outstretched for the ball. The smaller Arizona man was slower to leave his feet, and as he started to rise he bumped into the chest of the elevated Childress. Iguodala stumbled forward toward the basket while Childress grabbed the ball. The Stanford man had a superior reaction to the rebound and went up higher, faster. That should not surprise Arizona's head coach because this had been the result all game. Childress already had nine rebounds in the game, including four on the offensive end, before that clutch board. Iguodala had been invisible on the glass, snaring only two rebounds in 35 minutes of play.
But the white-haired whiner was far from done. He questioned the no-calls during the final 22 seconds as Stanford reached for the ball and ultimately forced the game-winning turnover. Never mind the fact that officials had called the most foul-free game we can remember this entire conference season, with just 11 total whistles the entire second half. Never mind the fact that the officials swallowed their noisemakers at 42 seconds left when Childress tied up Shakur on the inbounds play - that was a clear jump ball situation where Stanford had the possession arrow and should have been awarded the ball. Never mind that when Stoudamire had the ball with six seconds to go he was using his free arm to shove Lottich in the chest, and then tried to hook the defender to get past him.
No; Olson had to complain about Stanford's aggressive defense that led to the final steal and Robinson game-winner. The Card had committed only five fouls in the half and would not logically want to let Arizona get off a clean shot in the final possession without fouling and making the Wildcats reset their offense.
"Mike told them to foul and they were fouling," Olson postulates. "I guess only three people in the building didn't see that."
"We had a foul to give and wanted to be aggressive," explains Mike Montgomery. "We didn't want to foul; we wanted the get the steal. If you committed a foul trying, that would have been OK."
Those instructions were clearly evident with how Stanford's perimeter players defended on that play. As soon as Stoudamire took the inbounds pass, the Cardinal defenders backpeddled and set up for halfcourt man defense. Lottich was the man on the ball, but he never initiated any contact in the 10 seconds that Stoudamire first possessed the ball. He played tight defense, as did Robinson on Iguodala when he received the ball. Iguodala caught the ball near the half court line and looked like he had no intention of putting the ball on the floor. Stoudamire came back toward his teammate, and Robinson swiped at the ball as Iguodala extended it for the handoff.
There were now just seven seconds left in the game. If Stanford wanted to purely intentionally make a foul, now was the time. But when Stoudamire took possession in front of the Arizona bench, Lottich set his feet and spread his arms a good three feet away. He was in a defensive stance. In any basketball game when a player is intentionally seeking to commit a foul, he would attack the player and wrap him up as best he could. Lottich instead was positioning himself between Stoudamire and the basket, and only then did he close to try and start reaching for the ball.
Stoudamire started driving toward the top of the key, fending off Lottich with his free hand. But Lottich still was not wrapping up for the obvious foul that Olson thought would be instructed. Lottich moved his feet and stayed right on Stoudamire's hip.
"There were so many calls let go in the game," notes Rob Little of the physical and aggressive game that went foul-free. "What does [Olson] want? The officials made the right decision to let the players decide the end of the game. No way anything we saw was going to get called in the final seconds."
The mistake that Olson should instead have lamented was the offensive execution by his players in those final moments. Iguodala had Robinson away from the ball, but the Arizona wing drifted back toward the play and allowed Robinson to close in on the ball. That put him and Lottich at the top of the key, plus Channing Frye was setting a screen that brought Little to the epicenter. Stoudamire suddenly found himself between a trio of Stanford trees, and he unsurprisingly lost the ball. The rest was history.
One legitimate gripe would be the missed timeout that Chris Hernandez was trying to call back in the key. As soon as he saw Stanford gain possession, he saw three seconds left on the clock and motioned high above his head for a time out. None of the officials appeared to notice, and he thankfully did not cut short the greatest shot in Maples history.
"I was trying to find a ref - was trying to call a timeout," the point guard admits. "Thank goodness he didn't see me. Nick made a great play."
- Chris Hernandez had another tremendous game, scoring a team-high 20 points while notching five assists versus just two turnovers. Freshly rested after a shorter game Thursday against ASU, he was able to go 36 minutes and still have the energy to execute the fullcourt press in the final minutes. He also dominated Shakur, who scored only five points in 38 minutes on 2-of-7 shooting. Shakur was only able to dish two assists and turned the ball over twice.
- Little had a quiet second half, but still deserves kudos for 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting. He has some epic battles with Frye in the second half, who scored 15 on 6-of-12 shooting.
- Stanford's nine three-pointers tied the high for the year, matching the nine back in November at UC Irvine.
- This is only the second time since Arizona joined the Pac-10 that Stanford has swept the Wildcats home and away. The other instance came in 1995-96.
- Stanford now has a monster four-game lead over the rest of the conference competition, which is almost unthinkable with just four weeks left in the regular season.
- Robinson hit the game-winner, but give Childress some real credit for the second half. He scored 12 points and grabbed eight boards after halftime, including 2-of-3 shooting outside the arc.
- Stanford's next game comes next Saturday at Cal, when the Card look to break a two-year losing streak at Haas Pavilion and also break the school record with a 21-0 start.
- It was a Final Four atmosphere in Maples Pavilion, including some very notable guests. Some of the celebs in the stands include Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, Biletnikoff Award winner Troy Walters, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, former Secretary of State George Schultz, present Stanford president John Hennessy (with a red Stanford "S" painted on his face) and Tiger Woods with his fiance. Woods came to the locker room after the game and told the team that he is watching all their games back East and is "with the team in spirit."
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