This Date in Cardinal Hoops:
The Cardinal team captain's request involved giving it a rest. Pete Sauer was concerned and asked head coach Mike Montgomery to grant his team a rare day off from practice prior to the start of the 1998-99 Pac-10 season.
Wish granted, the Cardinal proceeded to win its first seven games in conference play, six of those coming by double-digits.
And then came...the grind. And oh, did it grind.
"I was tired as hell this whole game," said point guard Arthur Lee, after missing all but two of his 12 shots from the field at Arizona State's Ned Wulk Court (Wells Fargo Arena) on this very date in 1999.
"Hopefully, by the end of a game, we'll be fresh," said Sauer, after #5 Stanford indeed finished strong in a 73-63 win.
Yes, today's visit to Tempe marks the anniversary of yet another in a season of memorable reminders. At this point, the 1998-99 Cardinal (18-3, 8-1) had figured that living up to its Cinderella Final Four run the previous March was going to be much tougher than any obliging head coach.
Scoring sensation Eddie House and the Sun Devils became the third in a streak of five straight opponents to hold a halftime lead over the Cardinal.
ASU led by as many 11 in the first half until Sauer's double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) helped Sports Illustrated's preseason No. 1 escape a damaging road upset. Arizona State held a six-point lead in the second half, only to see the resilient Card respond with a devastating 16-0 run.
A disappointing second-round flameout in the 1998-99 NCAA tournament makes this team an easy target for the "underachiever" tag.
Anything short of another Final Four was going to fall short of lofty expectations placed on the four senior starters. But years after Gonzaga called in the "Casey Calvary" and sent our boys home, it's worth remembering how the Cardinal's veteran guile claimed a long-awaited first-ever Pac-10 title.
Two nights earlier in Tucson, the first visiting favorite at the McKale Center in over a decade nearly overcame a 13-point first half deficit, only to lose a heart-breaker on Jason Terry's tie-breaking jumper with 3.1 seconds left.
The California Bears would lead by nine points in Oakland four nights later, allowing Stanford only four field goals the entire second half...and still lose. The comeback Cardinal trailed at halftime in 11 of its first 23 games, yet it still held firm at 19-4 after falling to the eventual national champion UConn Huskies at Maples. By the end of the February, Stanford was No. 1 in the nation – in "strength of schedule".
"Obviously, I think we're very fortunate," Montgomery explained.
It wasn't merely the opposing teams who were tough. House, the Hayward High alum and now an established NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, was yet another in a series of outstanding individual talents to face the Cardinal.
Terry led the Pac-10 in scoring, rebounding and steals. The non-conference slate featured Maryland in Washington, D.C. followed by a memorable Preseason NIT tilt against St. John's, with New York's Madison Square Garden playing host.
Lee remembers. After narrowly losing to the Steve Francis-led Terrapins, the senior point guard drove hard to the hoop in the closing seconds of a tie game against the Red Storm. A sophomore playing in front of his hometown fans contested. Ron Artest came with a hard foul. A dazed Lee stayed on the MSG hardwood for over a minute, then calmly sank the winning free throws in Stanford's 55-53 win.
The midseason slump was especially tough on an exhausted Lee, who blamed fatigue for his recurring bouts of foul trouble and poor shooting. He made only 5-of-25 attempts from the field in the three-game stretch that included the Arizona road trip and Cal.
Coming off a win against the Bears, the Sun Devils (12-8, 4-4 Pac-10 coming in) had hoped to use their motion offense to score an upset. House, the Pac-10 single-game record-holder, tallied 25 points. Teammate Mike Batiste went for 21. The Cardinal shot only 35.3 percent from the floor for the game and were faced with a 37-31 halftime deficit.
"Long practices, and then we have to travel. That's what I think it is," Lee said. "I don't think anyone in the country practices as long and hard as we do."
The second half was about halfway over when the scoreboard showed Arizona State up 56-50. The final ten minutes saw Stanford's time-tested trademarks – tight defense and power play in the paint – make the difference.
Suddenly, Stanford forced turnovers on five straight Sun Devil possessions. Mark Madsen, aka the "Mad Dog", made key free throws in crunch time, including two big ones after drawing an intentional foul from Chad Prewitt. The end of the righteous run left the Cardinal leading 66-56. The resourceful visitors made 43 trips to the line, compared to only 11 for Arizona State.
"We're an old, veteran team," Lee said. "We know what we need to do."
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