With the win, the Cardinal advance to meet Arizona State in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament and, more importantly, by and large solidify their position on the safe side of the bubble in the now final lead-up to Selection Sunday. As such, after avoiding disaster against the lowly Cougars, Stanford affords itself the opportunity to control its own destiny in locking up a bid with a win over the fellow (relatively safe) bubble resident Sun Devils. Regardless of the outcome Thursday night, though, Stanford, for the first time in the Johnny Dawkins era, appears to be safely in the NCAA Tournament.
For an overwhelming, stomach-churning majority of Wednesday night's contest, however, that assertion seemed to be eluding the Cardinal yet again. Indeed, in what was the first true "must-win" (or one of the last true "must-wins," depending on your perspective) of Dawkins' career, Stanford played the first 30 minutes of the contest as though it were all too aware of what was at stake.
The Cardinal, that is to say, played not to lose, hoping that Washington State would just go away.
For much of the first half, though, the Cougars did quite the opposite, keeping within a possession or two of Stanford throughout. They had a good deal of success back-cutting a lackadaisical Stanford defense for easy looks at the rim in the early going and were similarly able to work for open looks around the perimeter. Throw in some grade-A hero ball from WSU guard Devonte Lacy, and the Cougars looked poised to stick around for much longer than Stanford would have liked in the game's opening moments. In fact, if Lacy had any help in the way of decent perimeter shooting, if not Pac-12 level talent, and if WSU was able to cut back on some unforced turnovers, the Cougars would have been in position to do much more than just play the Card close for the first 20 minutes.
On the other end, Stanford seemed to show its nerves, getting caught in a slow-down game with the less-athletic and less-talented Cougars in an ill-fated attempt to play a more mistake-free brand of basketball. The offense actually had a good rhythm in spurts working through Stefan Nastic, who was 3-3 from the field and had an assist in the first 20 minutes, but devolved into a lot of one-on-one play when it either inexplicably went away from the success it had been having with Nastic or when the junior big man took a seat on the bench. Stanford's saving grace in such an uninspired offensive first half was that it had the best player on the court in Chasson Randle, who had his way all night with an outmatched WSU backcourt, getting by his man and to the rim whenever he pleased. He scored 14 first half points, including nine of the Cardinal's final 13 of the half, and finished with 22 on the night.
Indeed, that combination of an objectively poor Washington State side, flat Stanford defense, and superb play by Randle came to define the half's closing -- and what seemed at the time as perhaps one of the game's most pivotal -- moments. Thanks to a pair of tough Randle floaters and some good work by Stanford big men on the offensive glass, the Cardinal were able to create a fluctuating five to seven point cushion coming home, seemingly readying the Cougars for a knockout blow before the break. Indeed, down seven with a minute to go, Washington State turned in what looked to be a horrific possession, nearly turning the ball over twice. Yet the Cardinal were unable to capitalize, not only allowing the Cougars to corral the basketball and get a shot off before the shot clock expired but also completely disregarding Cougar big man D.J. Shelton, who flew in for what would later become one of his seemingly patented put-back slams over the top of three unassuming Stanford defenders. Shelton then converted at the free throw line to complete the three point play and cut the lead down to four.
Seemingly on cue, however, Randle responded, stepping up to save the Card from what would have been an undoubtedly deflating close to the half. He knocked down a difficult, contested three just before time expired, pushing the lead back to seven, and in the process seizing the moment from what had been to that point an upstart Cougar side.
All that was left for the Card to do, it seemed, was give one good push of the gas pedal to open the second half. Washington State looked out on its feet.
At this point in the year, it probably does little to belabor things like effort and uninspired play, so we won't do it too much here. March is, after all, about winning and moving on.
That being said, for Stanford to turn in as poor a performance as it did in the effort and desire departments (never mind the nerves category, which is to a certain extent at least somewhat understandable) the first 10 minutes of the second half is beyond frustrating. How could a team wane in intensity with an opponent on the ropes and its own season on the line? We could give you some rundowns of complete possession breakdowns defensively, but some numbers will probably do a far better job of capturing the lack of desire and focus displayed during that stretch: three WSU offensive rebounds in a 2:30 span from the 14 to 11 minute mark, a 10-3 rebounding advantage for WSU, and 14 WSU points in the paint. With 9:25 to go, the Cougars had taken the lead at 50-47, and disaster, not to mention perhaps the final chapter of an era, had begun to take shape.
Okay, done belaboring.
Credit to the team, and most notably Dwight Powell, for seemingly not letting the disastrous possibilities take hold in its collective mind for more than a passing moment. Powell immediately responded to the Royce Woolridge three-point play that had given the Cougars the lead with the biggest shot of his career, a calm three pointer from the top of the key to tie things back up with 9:16 to go. The confidence that make seemingly inspired was enough to get the Cardinal over the hump. Anthony Brown followed with a mini-five-point surge of his own (three of those coming off a nice drive and kick assist from Powell), and after two Chasson Randle free throws, Stanford had pushed the lead to 57-50.
That 10-0 spurt ballooned into a 16-4 Stanford run and a 63-54 lead with just under four minutes to go, and the Cardinal were able to breathe (relatively) easily the rest of the way.
And so, in a month made for clichés, Stanford ultimately did well to right the ship, in the process surviving and advancing to Thursday night where it now lives to fight another day. In the maddening vacuum of March, that is all that matters.
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)!