Four score and seven days ago (minus 69), I wrote a 2,500-word-plus article basically saying how Stanford would be on pins and needles for an at-large berth to the NIT. The next afternoon, when 28 of 32 teams had been revealed, I was about to crap my pants. When Stanford-Cleveland State was revealed as the next matchup of teams in the NIT, I practically lost it in a fit of joy, just ecstatic that the Farm Boys would be playing in a legitimate postseason tournament for the first time in four years.
Two and a half weeks later, there I was on the Eighth Floor Press Row, "covering" the National Invitation Tournament championship game because Stanford had plowed through the Vikings, Redbirds, Wolf Pack, and Minutemen, earning the right to play Tubbyball without having to put on a dark-colored jersey (Stanford is the first #3 seed to be the higher seed in all five games).
The Farm Boys came into the night playing their best basketball of the season, winners of six of seven in March and looking for the program's first ever seven-win March, already playing on the latest date ever throughout time. An NIT ‘ship would mean a ton in terms of sending the seniors out right and building towards a very promising 2012-13 campaign.
For a couple of Golden Gophers, this game meant a chance to get back at a school that had spurned them. Both Andre Hollins and Elliott Eliason took visits to The Farm, only to be passed over by Johnny Dawkins - this was their chance to prove one of their former recruiters wrong.
The two of ‘em would have a chance to show Johnny what's good right off the bat, and, well, the results weren't so hot. Eliason found himself matched up with Josh Owens on that favorite left block of his, and Josh went to that favorite left shoulder of his, and hey, give Elliott some credit, he contested hard and Josh missed. But next time down, Josh wasn't to be denied, putting Stanford up 5-4. Later on, Owens would get it on the right block and Eliason thought he knew what was coming- not quite, E-squared. A step-through this time and Owens laid it in with ease.
Time to check in on the more anticipated battle of the night - Chasson vs. Andre Hollins, with Chasson winning out over Andre in the Johnny Dawkins Sweepstakes.
Early on, the battle was close. Chasson blew past Andre driving down the right side, only to miss the layup (credit Eliason for altering the shot). Hollins of the Andre variety responded wonderfully with a sick step-back jumper over Anthony Brown, but Chasson would get Andre back sooner than later with a supreme lefty finish over the freshman Tennessee native.
Early on, the battle was close overall. This was a great, hotly contested first 12 minutes of basketball. Extremely physical. Tremendous on-ball pressure in the half court from both sides. There were plenty of turnovers to go around, but they were for the most part FORCED turnovers in the truest sense of the phrase.
And early on, Midwest toughness was winning out. Rodney Williams was wet, scoring seven points on four shots in the first 10:18 of game action. Starting out with a layup, beating everyone down the court. Then with a long two, drilled right over Andrew Zimmermann. Then a three to put Minnesota up 19-17. Meanwhile, Stanford was struggling to get any clean looks offensively (a Josh Huestis offensive rebound put back was perhaps the best offense for a few-minute stretch). Tubbyball wasn't a walk in the park, so when you saw a white jersey release a right wing three, you thought it was a great look because the player was so open. But when you realized it was Jarrett Mann who was out there shooting that three, then, well…
I'll say this though, Jarrett made up for it by drawing a charge on Andre Hollins. A huge play for a couple of reasons: a) it was another stop that prevented Minnesota from extending its lead to six and b) it got Stanford to the under-eight mandatory timeout, a break the Cardinal desperately needed.
It was then that the Farm Boys showed just how pissed off they were for greatness. The next 32 minutes were nothing short of the best basketball this team has played all year (I hate to kill the suspense this early on in the re-telling of the game, but hell, you watched it, presumably, you know what happened already). I know I've whipped out some variety of the phrase "best game of the year" quite a lot for a team that didn't even make the NCAA tournament (I know I've used it in the Oklahoma State game, Colorado games, Cal home game maybe, Oregon State game in Corvallis certainly, and Nevada game at the very least), but for real, this was probably the best game of the year, considering what was at stake (only non-basketball purists would scoff and mock an NIT championship. If you don't like the NIT, you're not truly a fan of college basketball. You can hate on the CBI because it sucks, but not the NIT. Actually, you can't hate on the CIT either because it's strictly a mid-major tournament, and it gives team from conferences like the A-Sun something to realistically work towards).
While Stanford had already erased Minnesota's last lead of the game with a Huestis put back and Mann layup, the imposition of will really got kicked off by Aaron Bright, who sank a right wing three… and got fouled by Andre Hollins in the process. Earlier in the year, Aaron might have been just content with the three (I swear, how often did Stanford convert and-1s in January and February? Not as often as preferred), but nah, not tonight. He was in it for four, and four he got.
Bright then took it to the hoop, looking for the easy lay in - don't get ahead of yourself, Kevo! - I mean, looking to draw extra defenders and lay it off for an easy Josh Huestis deuce. Timeout Tubby.
Timeout doesn't work for the ole' Tub-meister, as Rodney Williams missed a contested layup. Suddenly, Rodney, who whipped up seven points like it was nothing, had gone as Steve Austin (stone cold) as the rest of his teammates.
The timeout also didn't take any steam out of the Brighton Line, who steamrolled his way down the court and nailing a crossover pull-up in Joe Coleman's mug in a shot that was reminiscent of Isaiah Thomas' against Stanford in Seattle in January 2010 not just because it was a pull-up but because it was a long two that had no business being reviewed because it was so obviously a two (at least Bright had his feet on the line; Thomas literally hit an 18-footer. Anyone else remember that from an otherwise forgettable 33-point drubbing?). And though Lionel Hollins' kid would knock down a couple of three freebies after being fouled by Mr. Montana on a three-point attempt, Aaron came right back down and hit a running push shot that had so much touch on it he could have dropped it in between a corner and a safety converging on a wide receiver on a go route.
Mr. 425 is in the building and feeling himself. Yeah, he's feeling himself!
That was about it for scoring for the half, with Stanford running into brick Eliasons and Ingrams in the paint and Aaron playing a little out of control, but that certainly wasn't it for toughness and physicality, as Dwight Powell got tangled up with Eliason on a jump ball call before Powell wrestled it away from Eliason, who wound up with his butt on the deck.
Eliason wasn't too pleased.
It made you wonder, if a Midwest kid through and through was getting flustered on a jump ball like that…could Stanford really be out-toughing a team from the toughest conference in D-I hoops?
Once the second half started, the answer was an absolute "yes."
I don't know why Minnesota thought it was a good idea to have Eliason handle the on the perimeter, and Mann and Zimmermann made the Gophers pay. Andrew steal, Mann breakaway dunk, up eight. I don't know why Minnesota thought it was a good idea to have Eliason handle the ball at half court after one turnover, and Jarrett Mann made ‘em pay. This time he was gonna do it himself, and just like that, Stanford had scored the first four points of the second half without Minnesota taking a shot. Jarrett would later tell me that, after being bothered by nagging injuries, he felt good physically - it showed with his pressure man defense in the first half on the Hollins kids and Coleman. He also told me that at halftime, he told the coaches he could REALLY get after it, and well, you saw what happened in the first minute of the second half.
And then you saw what happened in the rest of that first stanza of the second half, deemed oh-so important by every living, breathing basketball coach and analyst in the universe. Stanford continued to throw blow after blow, a different animal than it was in the last five minutes of the first half (and even that was an impending beast on the defensive end). Defense led to offense (Ant Brown was continuing to show off that sweet mid-range stroke), offense led to offensive rebounds, offensive rebounds led to second chance points, and all of the above led to complete and utter Golden Gopher submission.
In the first three minutes of the second half, Minnesota turned it over four times. In the first four minutes of the second half, Minnesota attempted just two field goal attempts, compared to Stanford's eight and two free throws. The 11-2 run leading up to the first media timeout was so thorough of a Cardinal beat down that it wasn't a run at all; this was no trend that was going away. Nah - Stanford was by far the superior team on the court, beating Minnesota at its own game. Tubby didn't use a timeout, and he really couldn't. Outside of the opening two layups, these weren't quick-hitting, swag-you-out-of-the-building buckets. This was grind-you-down, destroy-your-spirit defensive intensity and pound-you-on-the-glass, you-can't-hang-with-us buckets on the offensive end. It made you wonder, which team had more Midwest toughness to it?
The media timeout couldn't save the Golden Gophers as it only got worse. Insult was added to injury, and injury was heaped upon more injury, as Powell beat Williams off the dribble, got hacked by the Gopher, and then slapped him in the face as he went up for the layup (Dwight was still confused after the game how he got called for the contact technical, but replays showed there was some serious pounding of Rodney's face going on). In a further sign that it wasn't Minnesota's night, Powell, a decent free throw shooter at 70 percent, nailed both of his makes while Andre Hollins, who, had he made nine free throws in the game would have qualified as the nation's leading free-throw shooter at better than 92 percent, missed one of two technical free throws.
Hollins was having a helluva time against Jarrett on the offensive end and Chasson on the defensive end- got his pocket picked by Mr. Mann, got burned by the Rock Island Rookie on the Chasson finish (earlier in the half - not the same play, though that Mann steal did lead to an easy layup). Remember now that Andre Hollins absolutely owned Washington, hitting the eventual game-winning shot and scoring 21 points in the overtime win over the Huskies. No such luck tonight against a senior who harassed him like the paparazzi and a fellow freshman who Johnny thought was better, and at least on this night, was vindicated in his selection (though honestly, I'm not sure there is a soul on the planet who was questioning taking Chasson over Andre. There is no question: as good as Andre is, right now, Chasson is a ton better).
The senior who was guarding him was perhaps having the best all-around game of his career, and it continued when he drove to the paint, drew the D in, and found Aaron Bright wide open for a right wing three.
Aaron Bright's lookin' good.
Jarrett finished the game with nine points, five assists, one turnover, three steals, three rebounds, one block and just one bad shot. A tremendous performance. That dish to Bright gave Stanford its largest lead of the night at the time of 21, though that would be only 70 percent of its largest lead for the night.
Stanford was far from finished. The next possession down, Chasson Randle found Josh Owens down low before getting it right back from the big man in what was an apparent re-post. Apparently not- Chasson decided to shoot that S.O.B. and drill it from the left wing. Joe Coleman responded with a dunk off a nice feed from Julian Welch, but Chasson again immediately responded with a three to make it a 25-point affair.
Remember when I said these weren't swag-you-out-of-the-gym buckets? Well, with the game well in hand and Aaron Bright on the floor, they started to get that way. The Bellevue kid had a sweet behind-the-back pass to Josh Owens on the fast break for a dunk - not quite as tight as the one he had against Central Arkansas to open the season, but still impressive to close out the season. Before he got subbed out, Jarrett Mann attempted an alley-oop pass, just for the hell of it.
Stanford was having fun on the court, much like Washington used to all the time against the Farm Boys. But this time, it was Stanford who was swagging out of control. The lead got to 30, but well before that, it had been almost embarrassing to watch. No disrespect to the Golden Gophers, but they simply didn't want it as bad as the Cardinal; they weren't prepared to absorb the blows they were absorbing. There was never a response, literally. Until the subs came on to the court, Minnesota did not score back-to-back baskets even once in the second half. Their biggest spurt was a 3-0 run after Julian Welch made a three (not to pour on, but Welch's shot was so flat at times Thursday night I wondered how he even shot it 45 percent from deep on the season). Even that was quickly answered with a Bright find of Zimmermann for a layup. In fact, Stanford responded to a Minnesota bucket on the very next possession all but one time in the second half until the final couple of minutes. At the under-four, I closed my laptop and stopped taking notes as there was no need and hadn't been a need for the last seven or eight minutes of game action. The Farm Boys had put the Gophers in a sharpshooter, sat down in it, and any time the Gophers tried to inch closer to the ropes, the Card drug ‘em right back into the center of the squared circle. No relief in this beat down.
75-51 told the story just fine. This was a demolishing in the biggest of possible moments for either side. Finally the second half buzzer sounded, the 2012 NIT Champions t-shirts were passed out to the team in white, and the celebration was underway.
What a way to end the year. For a team that had some big ups and huge downs, the Farm Boys ended on the highest possible note available to them. On the plane ride back, Platz said it best - an NIT championship did this time a lot more than losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament ever could. A loss to South Florida in the First Four wouldn't have given Brown, Powell, Huestis, and Bright the chance to shine the way they did in the Field of 32 and get some serious momentum for 2012-13. A loss to South Florida would have only cast more questions. The NIT isn't and shouldn't be acceptable every year- it certainly shouldn't be acceptable next year- but for the 2011-12 Stanford Cardinal (or Stanford Cardinals, if you checked out the header for the post-game quotes from the UMASS game), the NIT was just what they needed to get right and ready.
So long to Josh Owens, Jarrett Mann, Andrew Zimmermann, Jack Trotter, Anthony Clarke, Brandon Jackson, Dominic Delfino, and of course, last but first, Dick Davey. Thanks for the memories.
Can't wait for Christian, Roscoe, and Grant to arrive on campus, and I especially can't wait for the release of the 2012-13 non-conference schedule, so I can fantasize about RPI and SOS possibilities. I just found out I will be going to the Battle 4 Atlantis next Thanksgiving with my family, so I'm already giddy for next year.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!