In the wake of Stanford's thrilling 80-77 victory over Arizona on Saturday, Cardinalmaniacs undoubtedly found themselves reminiscing about fantastic finishes from seasons past. At least I did. Three such finishes from the Mike Montgomery era stand out to me as being head and shoulders above the rest. In this week's CJ's Corner, I take a look back at this trio of fantastic finishes.
(I've attempted to rank the big three in ascending order based strictly on my subjective opinion of how thrilling the finish was.)
3. Stanford 84, Duke 83
December 21, 2000
Oakland Coliseum Arena
Stanford's signature victory from its 31-3 season was remarkable both for the magnitude of the comeback by the Cardinal and the status of the opponent. Stanford got behind early and found itself down 15 points in the second half. Up to that point, little was going right, particularly on offense, for the Card, and nobody aside from Casey Jacobsen seemed capable of presenting a consistent scoring threat. But Stanford continued to pound the ball inside and as the fouls on Duke's Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier mounted, Stanford's advantage in the frontcourt came to the fore. With 6:41 left in the game, the Card mounted an offensive assault the likes of which the Blue Devils had never seen. Stanford scored on an incredible 14 straight possessions down the stretch, fouling out Battier and Boozer in the process, and Jacobsen's jumper with just over three seconds left on the clock put the Card up by one and sent the partisan crowd -- the largest ever to see a college basketball game in California -- into a frenzy.
Some fans tend to forget that a mad dash down the floor by Duke's Jason Williams resulted in a contested layup attempt that would have won it at the buzzer for the Blue Devils. Williams' shot just missed, and the jubilant Cardinal celebrated one of the great comebacks in Stanford sports history.
Why this might have been the most fantastic finish of the three:
1. The deficit Stanford overcame (15 points with 6:41
remaining) was the largest of the three games, and Stanford trailed from the
first media timeout all the way up to Jacobsen's winning jumper.
2. Stanford scored on 14 straight possessions down the stretch (and needed every one of those points).
3. Although it's debatable whether the '00-'01 Stanford team was better than the current edition, this game clearly featured the most challenging opponent for Stanford. The Dookies featured future national players of the year Jason Williams and Shane Battier, as well as Carlos Boozer.
4. This was truly a heavyweight matchup; Stanford and Duke were arguably the two best teams in the nation, and the Cardinal and Blue Devils went on to finish the season ranked second and first, respectively, in the polls.
Why I didn't rank this game #1 on my list:
1. Of the three games listed here, this might have been
the least meaningful, as it was against an out of conference opponent and
occurred early in the season.
2. Unlike the time of the Rhode Island game, Stanford's reputation as a national power was secure (the Card had been ranked #1 at times the previous season).
3. The Cardinal had beaten Duke the previous season, and there was no other history with the Blue Devils to add to the drama.
2. Stanford 79, Rhode Island 77
March 22, 1998
St. Louis, Missouri
This stunner had the greatest importance of the games on my list, as it put the Cardinal in its first (and as of now, only) Final Four of the Mike Montgomery era. It also featured the most impressive individual performance I've seen by a Stanford athlete in a comeback effort.
Stanford and Rhode Island had battled hard and there were numerous lead and momentum swings in the game until the Rams seemingly took control with a 17-5 run that gave them an 11 point lead with under 9 minutes remaining. Rhode Island played stout defense and refused to let the Card back in the game. The Rams held a commanding six point lead with 59 seconds left in the contest. But as Mike Montgomery said after the game, the Stanford players had "a lot of heart, a lot of character." Nobody had more heart than point guard Art Lee, who scored an incredible 13 points in the final 2:04 of the game.
The Cardinal cut the Rams' lead to one when an Art Lee free throw capped a three point play by the junior. On the subsequent inbounds play, Art Lee stripped the ball, which was picked up by Mark Madsen, who stuffed it -- AND HE WAS FOULED (in the immortal words of Stanford radio man Bob Murphy). Mad Dog buried the free throw, and a subsequent free throw by Kris Weems gave Stanford a 77-74 lead. The game was very much in doubt, however, when Lee fouled Rhode Island's Tyson Wheeler on a three point attempt, sending the point guard to the line for a trio of free throws that could tie the game. Incredibly, Wheeler bricked all three attempts (the third on purpose), and a pair of free throws by Lee gave Stanford a 79-74 lead and put the game on ice. Cuttino Mobley bombed a three at the buzzer to cut the final margin to two.
Why this might have been the most fantastic finish:
1. This was obviously the most important win of the
three (and the most significant win for Stanford in the Montgomery era) because
it put the Cardinal into the Final Four.
2. The magnitude of the turnaround in the final minute was remarkable. Stanford turned a 6 point deficit into a 5 point lead in less than a minute.
3. Art Lee turned in one of the greatest clutch performances ever down the stretch of an NCAA tournament game, tallying 13 points in the final 2:04 of the contest.
Why I didn't rank this game #1:
1. Although the game wasn't decided until the final minute, Stanford took the lead it never relinquished with 26 seconds left. There were no lead changes after that, and Rhode Island didn't have an opportunity to win it on the final possession (Wheeler's three merely cut Stanford's lead from 5 to 2). This may have been the quickest 11 point swing you'll ever see from Stanford, and a comeback for the ages, but the game didn't come down to the buzzer. This was not quite a fantastic finish in the same sense as the other games on this list.
1. Stanford 80, Arizona 77
February 7, 2004
Despite solid play from Arizona, Stanford was firmly in control of this game and led throughout until a blistering 14-0 run by the visitors put the Wildcats out in front 72-67 with just under four minutes left in the contest. The Cats stayed out in front and when Salim Stoudamire buried a three from NBA range with 58 seconds remaining, Stanford was in deep trouble. After Josh Childress made the second of two free throws with 43 seconds left, Stanford ramped up the pressure and forced a bad pass at midcourt that resulted in a Matt Lottich steal. The Card pushed the ball aggressively, but intelligently, and Chris Hernandez spotted Josh Childress open right in front of the Stanford bench. Childress buried the three to tie the score at 77, and the capacity crowd at Maples erupted. Stanford had one foul left to give, so the Card played extremely aggressive man to man defense on the ensuing Wildcat possession. Matt Lottich held his ground despite some pushing by Stoudamire with his off hand, and when Nick Robinson and Rob Little converged on Stoudamire, he coughed it up. The ball was tipped into the hands of Nick Robinson, who drove the ball up the right side and launched a 35-footer a few tenths of a second before the buzzer. The shot was just reaching its zenith when the buzzer sounded. 7,391 mouths were agape as the ball descended and looked to have a chance. SWISH! Instant chaos. Deafening cheers. Players and students alike converged in a maelstrom around Pops as onlookers were left in stunned disbelief. As the band cranked out "All Right Now" nobody could tear themselves away from the spectacle and leave the stands. It wasn't until several minutes later that the throng slowly trickled out of Maples, most shaking their heads in disbelief. Later, in the Track House, fans were riveted to the television sets as ESPN News ran highlights of the final moments over and over. Pops with the bomb . . . chaos on the court . . . Musberger and Vitale shouting at the tops of their lungs. You couldn't help but watch the replay each time and feel a sense of witnessing the impossible.
Several days later, the thrill of Stanford's victory over Arizona has barely worn off. Maybe when several months -- if not years -- have passed, we'll look back at the game and remember it as a wonderful game with an incredible buzzer beater, but one that was less significant in Stanford lore than beating Rhode Island to make the Final Four or erasing a 15 point deficit by scoring on 14 straight possessions to beat #1 Duke. That's all possible.
But for now, Saturday's thriller between Stanford and Arizona ranks at the top of my list. Here's why:
1. This was the only game of the big three that
featured a buzzer beater to win it for Stanford at the end.
2. Lost amid all the discussion about and replays of Nick Robinson's shot is the fact that there were TWO buzzer-beaters in this game. Salim Stoudamire's prayer to end the first half was a mini version of Pops' shot heard round the basketball world.
3. Although the 2000 game between Stanford and Duke featured a better, more highly ranked opponent for the Cardinal, Saturday's game was arguably played at a higher level. Despite tenacious defense, both teams managed to shoot over 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. Even the Wildcats, who are not known for their patience and willingness to dissect a defense, showed remarkable poise in frequently working through much of the shot clock to get a good look at the basket. Arizona's shot selection was the best I've seen against Stanford in years. And despite one rough stretch during the late Arizona run where the Cardinal turned the ball over a few times, Stanford played extremely smart, efficient basketball. By contrast, the game against Rhode Island featured a few too many ugly possessions and bricks to qualify as a well-played game. Except in the eyes of a Stanford fan, that game was not aesthetically pleasing. Defense had something to do with that, of course, but until Art Lee took over at the end, Stanford fans were frustrated by the Card's uninspired play on offense.
4. History. Stanford had a huge monkey on its back going into the Arizona game. After four straight victories by the Wildcats at Maples, including some real barn-burners, Stanford fans were understandably anxious about history repeating itself. The games against Rhode Island and Duke featured no such historical backdrop. In fact, Stanford had defeated Rhode Island earlier in the '97-'98 season before meeting the Rams in the Elite Eight. Stanford had defeated Duke in the teams' only previous matchup, which had taken place the prior season. Duke certainly loomed as a theoretical rival for Stanford in 2000, but Arizona had been a thorn in the Cardinal's side on and off since Montgomery arrived on the Farm back in 1986. In keeping with precedent, the first 39 minutes of Saturday's contest were eerily reminiscent of several prior contests in which the Cats put a run on Stanford to take a lead and the Cardinal was unable to seize opportunities for victory. There might not have been so much as a single Stanford fan in the building who didn't think "I can't believe this is happening AGAIN" or some version thereof. All this history conspired to add to the tension of the game, which built to a crescendo in the closing moments, and Robinson's buzzer-beater was nothing less than cathartic.
1. Stanford. #1 seed in the West if the season
were to end today. With the losses by UConn and Pittsburgh on Monday (one
of those two will get another loss this weekend when they play each other), the
gap between the Big Three of Stanford, Duke and St. Joe's and the rest of the
field is considerable.
2. Arizona. The Wildcats would be a #6 seed if the season ended now.
NCAA Tournament Bubble
1. Oregon. I'll move the Ducks onto the bubble if
they sweep this week and/or win three out of their next four. Lack of
quality wins makes Oregon a longer shot than ESPN's Joe Lunardi makes them out
2. Kal. Everybody knows what the dirty golden bears need to do to get into the bubble discussion. The game at kal is frequently a difficult one for Stanford because the kal players usually have more on the line than their Cardinal counterparts and the envious weenie nation fans are extremely loud and almost as hostile as Jason Kidd prior to domestic violence counseling. Throw in Stanford's undefeated record, its #2 ranking, the bears' desperate need for a win to get into the NCAA tournament picture, and the emotional retirement of the number of legendary kal student-athlete Kidd, and this is likely to be the most hostile environment Monty's guys will ever face. A win will send the Weenie nation into a frenzy (and possibly lead to untoward if not dangerous behavior), while a loss will lead to cheers of "N-I-T" from Stanford partisans.
3. Washington. Just when you thought you had the Huskies figured out, they roll over and play dead.
4. UCLA. Almost unwatchable, even when they win.
5. Washington State. In many other years, Dick Bennet would merit serious consideration as Pac-10 coach of the year.
6. USC. Maybe not as dangerous as we all thought.
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