At the end of regulation Sunday evening at Maples Pavilion against #9/#10-ranked Washington, emotions filled the air. Astonishment. Exhilaration. Celebration.
After 40 minutes of basketball that included some inspiring defense mixed with some heinous offensive gaffes, Stanford had new life. Incredibly, improbably, fantastically - the Cardinal had new life.
For all the turnovers. For not getting the ball into the right hands the first time Stanford looked for the last shot. For each foul committed. For each missed open jumper.
Tied Stanford had a fresh five minutes with the score tied at 63-all. Back to square one, it was a new game. All the mistakes and miscues that could and maybe should have cost the Cardinal a must-win game were erased. Down three points with 2.1 seconds to go, it was a play called "home run." Just a stone's throw from Sunken Diamond, a trio of Cardinal players executed and hit it out of the park.
6'8" freshman Lawrence Hill, whose wingspan allows him to throw the ball over a defender like a 6'10" player, had the ball under Stanford's basket to begin the play. The frosh threw the in-bounds pass to halfcourt, where senior Matt Haryasz came back for the ball ahead of his defender. Though bumped on the play, Haryasz regained his balance and looked to find the quickest open option among classmate Dan Grunfeld or fifth-year senior Chris Hernandez. It was the Cardinal's elder statesman who received the pass from Haryasz, and Hernandez just outside of the three-point arc left his feet for one desperation shot before the buzzer.
Stanford trailed 63-60, needing a three-pointer and nothing less to salvage overtime. Husky freshman point guard Justin Dentmon was out of position and swiped at Hernandez, fouling him and sending the ball off in another direction as the horn sounded.
Did it happen? Did it really happen?
After extensive consultation at the scorer's table with a replay monitor, the officiating crew judged that the foul occurred with 0.2 seconds remaining in the game, sending Chris Hernandez - the team's best free throw shooter at 86.2% - to the line with an improbable opportunity for overtime. His chances of making all three free throws were the best on the team, but few of even the game's sharpest shooters at the stripe rarely make three in one trip. Hernandez' chances were 64.1%, but his smiling teammate was 100% confident.
"I knew it was money. I wasn't even nervous," Haryasz bellows. Grunfeld approached the emotional 6'11" senior and asked what he was thinking. "Chillin'. We're going to overtime."
"I knew he was going to make it."
Hernandez stroked the first two free throws without any disturbance of the iron, and then the Huskies called a 30-second time out to help Hernandez think more about his final attempt. The third offering from the charity stripe was not like the first two, rattling the front rim, the back and the backboard before dropping through the twine.
"Luckily, the Lord was with me," Hernandez exhales. "I was praying to Him when I was about to go to the line, and I put them down."
Stanford assistant coach Tony Fuller had heckled Hernandez earlier in the day during the team's shoot-around. The seven-year Cardinal coach gave the fifth-year senior some jabs on his failed free throws in Las Vegas a month earlier that helped Stanford lose a critical game to Virginia Tech.
"That made me focus for the game," Hernandez reports of the ribbing. "When I was put in the situation again, luckily I was able to turn it around."
The Cardinal closed out regulation with free throws saving the day, but that should be no surprise. Stanford leads the Pac-10 by a solid margin in free throw shooting at 77.0%. They shot 77.1% on Sunday night, hitting 27 of their 35 attempts. But the Cardinal were perfect in the second half, when they needed every last trip to the charity stripe to claw their way back into the game and then into overtime, with a 12-of-12 performance.
Ironically, Stanford stumbled in the overtime period, missing five of their 14 attempts. Yet they ran away from the Huskies in the extra five-minute stanza, outscoring Washington 13-4 for a 76-67 final.
The Cardinal were surging with confidence in overtime, while the Huskies were a hollow shell of their Top 10 ranking. Stanford scored the first four points in the bonus period off a pair of Washington turnovers, both off the hands of fifth-year senior Jamaal Williams rifling the ball out of bounds. Stanford built a nine-point lead, 74-65, while the home crowd roared louder and louder.
"When we huddled before the jump ball, we said this is our second chance. You don't get many second chances, and we got one. We took advantage of it," Haryasz relates. "We had the momentum, obviously. I was confident that we were going to win the game when we went to overtime.
Overtime in games of this profile have not always been kind to the Cardinal. From the loss at Arizona earlier this month to the Sweet Sixteen game against Utah in 1997. From the JaRon Rush out-of-bounds play in the UCLA game (Senior Day for Mark Madsen) in 2000 to the cusp of a National Championship against Kentucky in the 1998 Final Four.
But the story of this game centered around the final seconds of regulation much more than any event in the five minutes of overtime. It started with Stanford trailing by one point in the closing seconds of the game. The differential between the shot clock and game clock prevented Washington from taking the final shot, but they never got a good look at the basket. Throughout the evening, Stanford's defense kept them in the game, holding the nation's #1 scoring team to just 36.6% shooting. On this possession, it was a steal by Cardinal freshman Mitch Johnson with 15 seconds to go that turned the tables and set up Stanford to take a final shot to win the game.
But by the time the Cardinal moved the ball across halfcourt, and the officials recognized Hernandez' time out signal, there were only 5.9 seconds left in regulation. Stanford had to in-bound the ball just across the midcourt line, and it was Johnson who handled the ball. The freshman point guard had already turned the ball over six times in the game, playing the most minutes of his college career but enduring his most mistake-filled game to date. Johnson took a quick look at the defense and opted to drive the ball around the lane. He turned the ball over - again - giving the Huskies possession and seemingly the ballgame with 2.1 seconds to go.
"I was just indecisive. I should have either took it out wide and let Danny come through and Chris come up, or if I'm going to drive, then I need to get right to the rim like Coach says," Johnson laments. "It was just a bad decision on my part, but we'll learn from it."
Pac-10 Player of the Year favorite Brandon Roy went to the free throw line and drained both attempts to widen Washington's lead to three points. Stanford's ultra-faint hopes to wear dancing shoes during March Madness were flickering ominously. Numerous fans donning the home colors headed for the exits.
And then the Cardinal crushed their "home run."
"We were working on it for two years, and we've never really done it right until today," Hernandez remarks.
Stanford has a practice schedule where they conduct a "dry run offense" the day before a game. That is to say that they run through offensive plays without any defense on the court. It is part of their routine, before every game, to practice "home run" at least once. Cardinal players have practiced the in-bounds buzzer-beating play with anywhere from five seconds to one-plus tick on the clock, but in the two years since Trent Johnson took the reins never before Sunday evening against any kind of defense.
"That's not even close to simulating - when you've got a packed house, down three, Pac-10, Washington," Haryasz says with emphasis. "You can't simulate that. If we did it three more times, it probably wouldn't work. But this one did."
Considering what was at stake for Stanford in this game, considering the opponent, and considering the wild improbability of the play to turn the game at the end of regulation, this ending ranks among the greats in the program's history. The "home run" play and Hernandez' free throws will stack up with Nick Robinson's heroic heave to beat Arizona in 2004 and Casey Jacobsen's bank shot to beat Duke in 2000.
Nobody was more relieved than Mitch Johnson, whose seventh turnover nearly turned the game into a sickening defeat. The point guard future for Stanford watched from more than 30 feet behind the present prince of The Farm. Hernandez' three free throws wiped away the freshman's fumble.
"When you make the turnover, obviously you want to take that back," Johnson allows. "That was the ultimate pick-me-up. He had my back."
It was Hernandez' teammates who had his back for the final 12:16 of the first half, when he sat on the bench with two fouls. The fifth-year senior swiped at Jon Brockman under the basket after the Washington forward corralled an offensive rebound. Stanford's co-captain retreated to the bench while his team held a three-point lead. The Cardinal could only score five points over the next 10-plus minutes and saw Washington surge to an eight-point lead. Stanford escaped to the locker room down just five.
"I was very confident in my teammates and what they were doing," Hernandez explains. "There was no need for me to go to Coach J and say, 'Put me back in.' You've got two fouls and don't want to pick up three. It was more of me trying to control myself and calm myself down. Just forget about it and get ready to play in the second half."
Hernandez was more than ready when the game hung in the balance with 0.2 seconds remaining in regulation. Those three free throws were part of a perfect 9-of-9 day at the stripe, though he shot just 2-of-7 from the field in the game. Senior Dan Grunfeld also had a hard time shooting, hitting 3-of-10 on the evening. Picking up the slack was Haryasz, whose 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting carried the Cardinal. The reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week was the only Stanford player in double figures at the end of regulation, with more than twice the scoring of any of his teammates. It marked the fifth straight game for Haryasz scoring north of 20 points.
Stanford is just the eighth team in the Pac-10 to notch their 10th win, underscoring just how long the odds are for the Cardinal to make their 12th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament, but they stand today tied for second place in the conference at 6-3. UCLA is just one game ahead of Stanford at 5-2, with nine games still remaining in the conference regular season. The Huskies stand fifth in the Pac-10 at 5-4, despite holding the highest national ranking of any team in the conference.
Up next for Stanford is the Oregon road trip. While the Ducks and Beavers are the only regional pair in the Pac-10 with losing conference records, the Cardinal still hold just one road victory to their name this year.
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