Prior to the season, sophomore point guard Aaron Bright looked like he could be the odd man out in Stanford’s rotation. Now, he just may be the best player on the team.
Bright dazzled for the second straight game, leading all scorers with 21 points as the Cardinal (2-0) beat Fresno State 75-59 in the opening round of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Maples Pavilion. Sophomore forward Josh Huestis contributed a double-double off the bench for Stanford, which had five players score in double figures.
“You have to give Aaron a lot of credit,” said Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins. “For one, he is a heck of a competitor. It was evident that he wanted to improve and wanted to become a better player. And he did. I love to see a kid willing to pay the price to become the player he wants to become.”
The Cardinal got off to a slow start in the nationally televised matchup, as senior big man Josh Owens took a seat less than four minutes into the game after a questionable over-the-back call. With sophomore forward Dwight Powell sidelined with an ankle injury, Dawkins entered a period of lineup experimentation, with 10 different Cardinal players seeing the floor in just eight minutes of play. Huestis provided the biggest lift in relief of Owens, holding down the paint with five points, five boards and a monster block before intermission.
“Going into last year, I struggled with confidence early,” Huestis said. “Coming into games this year, I’ve figured out my role on the team and how I can play into that to help us win.”
Once again, Bright starred in the first half. The undersized guard, who Dawkins deemed the most improved player on the squad, showed off his confident stroke from range, connecting on both three-point attempts en route to 10 points in the opening half. His two free throws at the 8:30 mark gave Stanford its first lead at 16-15, a lead the team never surrendered. The addition of highly touted freshman guard Chasson Randle has allowed Bright to play off the ball, a change that has reduced his ball-handling responsibilities and created additional shooting opportunities.
“When I go into the game, I’m not looking to be the leading scorer,” Bright said. “If they’re giving me the open shot, I’m going to take it. Right now, it’s been working in my favor offensively.”
Seniors Jack Trotter and Jarrett Mann contributed six apiece in the first half, as the Cardinal managed to shoot 48 percent from the field to begin the game. Stanford stretched the lead to as big as six with 1:12 remaining, but nine turnovers coupled with 50 percent shooting by Fresno State from behind the arc kept the game close, with Stanford holding onto a 34-30 lead at the break.
After intermission, the Cardinal picked up where it left off, blazing out to a 43-30 lead behind more dominant play from Bright. Stanford held the Bulldogs scoreless for the first 3:42 of the second half, with excellent defensive rotation on the perimeter more than making up for the lack of size on the interior. The teams traded buckets throughout the remainder of the period, but Stanford managed to hold on to a double-digit lead until the 12:10 mark.
That was when Fresno State’s Kevin Olekaibe caught fire. The sophomore guard, who finished with a team-high 17 points, scored eight straight for the Bulldogs, cutting the lead to just five. But the Cardinal took advantage of its 38 free-throw attempts, connecting on 25 to keep the game out of reach. Transition layups by Randle put the game firmly in hand, as Stanford held on to advance to the next round of the early-season tournament.
“I think it was a terrific challenge,” Dawkins said. “I’m very proud of our kids. I think our kids did a lot of growing up in a game like that where you have to stand your ground and maintain your poise.”
The Cardinal will take on Colorado State, which defeated SMU in the early game, tonight at 8 p.m. in Maples Pavilion.