This Date in Cardinal Hoops: 2-04-88
Call it the "alpha upset". The first truly big victory of the gone-but-not-forgotten Mike Montgomery era at Stanford, the first significant win for the Cardinal in the modern (as in the introduction of ESPN, the three-point line) era of college basketball, hits legal drinking age today.
Yes, 21 years ago today, on Feb. 4 of 1988, Stanford won a monumental 82-74 decision at Maples Pavilion against top-ranked Arizona. Mind you, not since 1942 had the program earned a postseason berth. The most recent win of any real importance had come 13 years earlier against No. 2 UCLA, and there had been a whole lot of lean years in between.
"Well, I guess it comes in spurts," said Howard Wright, the junior forward who scored 22 points against Arizona.
These Wildcats had come in sporting an intimidating 20-2 record. The average margin of victory through their first nine Pac-10 games had been 29 points. Sean Elliott led the way with a lighting-quick first step, pinpoint jumpers and a soft-spoken attitude. Other familiar names including Steve Kerr, Tom "Mr. T" Tolbert, Jud Buechler, Anthony Cook and a reserve point guard named Kenny Lofton made up the first of Lute Olson's four Wildcat Final Fours. Stanford's previous meeting with the U of A had ended with a demoralizing 90-65 loss at the McKale Center.
Stanford (14-7, 6-4 following the win) was unfazed down the stretch, overcoming a halftime deficit while holding Arizona scoreless over the final five minutes and 33 seconds. The Cardinal's ambidextrous All-Pac-10 star Todd Lichti led all scorers with 23 points. The dynamic shooting guard dribbled away the final seconds, before being swallowed up by the delirious Stanford fans who rushed the Maples court.
"The biggest difference between (the loss in Tucson) and this was confidence," Lichti said. "The crowd made us feel like we couldn't lose tonight."
Wright was the catalyst, scoring big hoops early and getting Cook in foul trouble. Arizona was, for for the first time that year, flustered. The 'Cats postgame complaints sound familiar even by today's standards.
"I didn't understand some of those calls in the early minutes," said Kerr, who made three of four shots from three-point range and scored 18 points. "There were some clean blocks, but I guess that's just Pac-10 officiating." When he was whistled for the game's lone technical foul, Mike Montgomery, then in just his third season on The Farm, seemed to agree.
6'11" Greg Butler, Stanford's perimeter-preferring center and lone senior starter, scored a huge late basket among his 14 points. The Cardinal led 75-74 when Wright's shot bounced off the iron. In swooped Butler for the tip-in and the 77-74 edge with 1:17 to play.
Wright's free throw with 2:59 left had given Stanford its first lead of the second half. Arizona was up 43-40 going into halftime, and held a 67-62 advantage with ten minutes to play. Elliott was his usual dominating self throughout, scoring 22 points.
But the Pac-10's top player was held in check through much of the second half by unsung hero Brian McSweeney, a small forward and one of Cardinal's four junior starters (point guard Terry Taylor, Lichti and Wright were the others).
Elliott also missed a key free throw in the final minute after a hard foul by McSweeney. In an otherwise unremarkable season capped by an NIT berth, the Arizona outcome of 1988 lives on in Stanford sports lore.
"If it wasn't the biggest win in the history of Stanford basketball," wrote Phil Taylor (now of Sports Illustrated) in the San Jose Mercury News, "then it was at least the biggest in recent memory."
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