This Date in Cardinal Hoops: 3-04-04
Nothin' But Net!
Triple-crown-bound Secretariat steamrolling past the competition in the 1973 Belmont Stakes they certainly were not. Mike Montgomery's final edition on the Farm flirted with perfection, but the 2003-04 Cardinal lived on the edge often during its famous 26-0 run.
Stanford needed a trio of last-second escapes in Pac-10 play to keep its overall record unblemished. The streak's final win came on this very date five years ago. Matt Lottich buried an off-balance, turnaround 23-footer as the Friel Court buzzer sounded, earning a wild 63-61 win over host Washington State.
With all apologies to Nick Robinson, this one was the most miraculous. The nation's No. 1 team erased a five-point deficit in the final minute, with a four-point play and a five-second violation setting up the game-winner.
"I got a good look at it, a good release, and God caught it and put in," said a reverent Lottich.
Robinson had became a father to "Annie" just four days prior to the Washington State game, which came weeks after his 35-foot, buzzer-beating heave beat Arizona in historic fashion. Each passing win did more than just keep the Cardinal's record as unblemished as a Josh Childress fro on gameday. It added to a saga that defined college basketball in 2004. Not one, but two teams carried perfect records into March.
Attention now shifted from a sweaty fieldhouse in Philadelphia to the snowy Palouse. The top-ranked Cardinal (25-0) put its unbeaten record on the line on the same week No. 2 St. Joseph's (27-0) held serve. Jameer Nelson, Delonte West and crew became the first team to complete an unbeaten regular season since UNLV 13 years earlier.
"We're going to have to really be ready to play defense for long periods of time," said center Rob Little, handicapping the possession-minded Cougars.
Coach Dick Bennett, a maestro of deliberate offense and suffocating defense, had Washington State primed and ready, with an upset on their minds. The Cougs would win 13 games that year after going just 7-20 the previous season. And behind powerful Jeff Varem (14 points) and Marcus Moore, the home side dictated the pace early. Stanford led 29-26 at the break but soon lost the handle. The Cougars were clearly the more inspired team, holding a 49-43 edge with six minutes left.
"We didn't play well enough to win," explained Mike Montgomery. "We can't walk away feeling like a million bucks."
Stanford's hopes had indeed looked grim. Varem scored the last of his points with two foul shots. The scoreboard showed Washington State up five (61-56) with just 25.3 seconds left
The Cardinal now turned to the Spirit of Stanford that had erased a 19-point deficit at Oregon, that Childress had called upon to sky for last-second tip-in at Arizona State, and what Lottich had pulled from his pocket in a December win over then-No. 1 Kansas.
Later in March, sophomore Dan Grunfeld's last-ditch three-point attempt would clang just off iron in Stanford's second-round NCAA tournament loss to Alabama (by three points). But on this magical night, Grunfeld almost single-handedly enabled the Cardinal comeback. Point guard Chris Hernandez found the sophomore open in the right corner with Varem bearing down. Grunfeld buried the clutch shot while being fouled. An amazing, improbable, inspiring four-point play has whittled the deficit to just a single point!
Despite being a experienced senior, WSU's Moore rather wearily handled the inbounding duties along the near sideline, looking in all directions while confronting a desperate Stanford press. The seconds counted down, and Moore signaled for a timeout right as the official's whistle blew. Change of possession! Cardinal ball!
''I can't say it was five, and I can't say it wasn't,'' Montgomery said. "But it was close.''
Bennett fumed. "They blew it," said the coach, who 10 years earlier had beaten Jason Kidd and Cal in the NCAA tournament's first round as head coach of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
With new life and 17.4 seconds to play, Stanford almost blew it. Hernandez fumbled away the ball near his own bench. Lottich, sprawled on the floor, grabbed it before finding the nearest open man.
Robinson thought about shooting, but then dribbled and turned his back to the basket. Lottich by this time had scrambled to his feet and grabbed Robinson's pass with both the clock racing toward 0:00 and a charging Cougar defender bearing down. Lottich spun and hoisted up a one-footed prayer while falling away as the buzzer sounded.
"I felt like I was balanced," he said. "I had a good release."
The streak....was alive!
Having screamed itself hoarse all night, the Cougars' largest home crowd in seven years (8,175) was now stunned into catatonic silence. Scattered debris hit the court as delirious Cardinal players dog-piled at the foot of the student section. Striped shirts convened along a television monitor at midcourt before making it official. For at least another night, there would be two more unbeatens.
"There was a sense of desperation, being down at that point,'' Grunfeld said of the final minutes. "But sometimes that's good. We got in their faces, made some plays happen, and were able to win the game.''
And win the Cardinal did. 30-2 overall, 14-0 at home, a #1-seed, and four weeks at #1 in the Associated Press poll.
The Editors wish to relay thanks to Josh Childress, Justin Davis, Chris Hernandez, Dan Grunfeld, Matt Lottich, Nick Robinson, Fred Washington, Matt Haryasz, Jason Haas, Carlton Weatherby and the rest. The Bootleg will never forget the thrills and chills of that miraculous, memorable season of 2003-04!
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