For 36 minutes, it was No. 5 Syracuse that looked like the upstart trying to hang with the Stanford men’s basketball team in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday. The Cardinal struggled to score but was doing just enough on the offensive end while holding the Orange down on defense.
In a back-and-forth game where either team’s largest lead was eight points, Stanford (5-1) led 60-54 with 4:27 remaining. But that’s when the Card began to crumble, wilting under a full-court press as Syracuse’s experience finally showed up in crunch time, leading to a 69-63 Orange win.
After the Cardinal took the six-point lead, Brandon Triche scored a driving layup, C.J. Fair followed with a three-point play after a turnover and preseason All-American Kris Joseph gave Syracuse the lead for good, 61-60, on a banked jumper with 2:54 to play that brought the crowd of over 8,000 at Madison Square Garden to its feet.
The Orange (6-0) closed the game on a 15-3 run, and Stanford turned the ball over three times in the final minutes to seal the deal.
But there were plenty of bright spots despite the disappointing loss. The Cardinal was picked by the media to finish sixth in the Pac-12 this season, but early results from around the conference combined with Stanford’s strong showing thus far have thrown the preseason rankings out the window.
After losing last year’s top scorer Jeremy Green to the pro ranks, sophomore guard Aaron Bright has stepped up in a big way, reaching double digits in points in every game this season. Bright was named to the Tip-Off All-Tournament team. Freshman Chasson Randle has thus far lived up to the hype, averaging 10.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
In general, the sophomore class has looked very solid, with several players showing signs of improvement from last year. Forward John Gage came off the bench against Syracuse to score 10 points, including two huge three-point shots in just 12 minutes.
And while forwards Josh Huestis, Anthony Brown and Dwight Powell didn’t have remarkable performances in the championship game—Huestis scored eight points to go along with five rebounds but missed all four of his free throws, and Powell and Brown were held to just 10 points combined—they have been extremely active on defense and have all crashed the glass extremely well.
Throw in forward Josh Owens’ consistency—the redshirt senior is again averaging over 12 points per game and is second on the team in rebounding—and Stanford appears to have the tools to make a move toward playing meaningful games in March for the first time since 2008’s Sweet 16 appearance.
But the Cardinal can’t afford to slip up late in games like it did against the Orange.
“It’s awful. It’s never good when you lose, especially when you were up the whole game,” Bright said after the game. “Syracuse played great down the stretch and we weren’t able to make the same plays.”
Stanford will have a chance to continue building its resume for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee with three upcoming non-conference games in the next week.
Tonight, Stanford plays host to Pacific (2-2), which is coming off two wins against Cal State Monterey Bay and Cal State Dominguez Hills with a little bit of momentum. But the Tigers might struggle to score—the team is shooting just 39.1 percent from the field so far this season.
The Cardinal also holds a large advantage in the all-time series, which dates back to 1913. Stanford is 31-3 against the Tigers, although the last matchup came back in 1998—Pacific’s last win in the series came back in 1933.
Tip-off from Maples Pavilion is scheduled for 7 p.m.