In Stanford’s biggest game of the season, the Cardinal was able to beat rival Cal and deny the Golden Bears a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. The victory secured Stanford’s first 20-win season since 2007-08 and gave the squad plenty of momentum going into the season-ending conference tournament.
The Cardinal (20-10, 10-8 Pac-12) came into the game knowing that, win or lose, it would finish the regular season seventh in the Pac-12. Cal (23-8, 13-5), however, had the regular season conference title on the line and was sure to come out fighting. Stanford was determined to ruin this for the Golden Bears, as well as provide a great end to the season in front of an energetic home crowd on Senior Night.
The Cardinal came out hard, roaring to a 17-7 lead eight minutes into the game. As usual, the catalyst for the offense was freshman guard Chasson Randle, who scored eight early points and finished with a team-high 17.
Despite Stanford’s offensive push, the game got off to a chippy start with two early technical fouls called on an exchange between Cal guard Justin Cobbs and Stanford senior guard Jarrett Mann in the first three minutes. The two squads would eventually combine for 40 fouls, though the Maples Pavilion crowd was audibly upset with many calls — the Golden Bears only had seven fouls to Stanford’s 19 at one point in the second half.
Stanford took one of its largest leads of the game, 14 points, at the 7:30 mark due to a rare three from senior Andrew Zimmermann. The forward was definitely determined to take advantage of his final home regular-season game, scoring a season-high 13 points while playing his highest minutes total of the season.
Head coach Johnny Dawkins made sure to point out Zimmermann’s contributions, even with his three first-half fouls.
“[Zimmermann] came out and gave us a big lift,” Dawkins said. “I felt good with Zimmermann in the game, and I knew he understood how to play with three fouls. I knew he wouldn’t go out there and pick up another one quick, and that’s the trust you have to have in a player, especially a senior.”
Cal couldn’t be counted out, however, as the Golden Bears took advantage of Stanford’s 12 first-half fouls. Senior forward Harper Kamp, also playing his final regular season game, scored nine of his 19 points in the final eight minutes of the half and sunk five free throws as Cal closed the gap to single-digits, 39-34, at the break.
A three-pointer from sophomore guard Allen Crabbe cut the Stanford lead to two to start the half. Crabbe, Cal’s leading scorer, had a game-high 20 points, with 13 coming in the second half.
Stanford, however, refused to give up any ground, going on a 9-2 run to keep the momentum on the Cardinal side and hold onto its advantage into the final minutes. The Golden Bears struck back time and time again, finally cutting the Cardinal lead to 72-70 with 1:11 to go.
With the game on the line and 42 seconds remaining, sophomore guard Aaron Bright put it on himself to win the game for the Cardinal. After he was fouled, Bright hit the first free throw but missed the second. The 5-foot-11 guard may have been the smallest guy on the court, but he was not intimidated, grabbing the offensive rebound of his own shot and drawing another foul.
Bright again hit the first and missed the second to make it 74-70, but yet again, he was able to collect the offensive rebound. He would be fouled and hit one more free throw to stretch the Stanford lead to five and seal the game for the Cardinal.
Stanford was outrebounded for one of the only times all year, but made up for it with one of the squad’s best shooting performances of the season. The team shot 46.7 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from behind the arc to best the Golden Bears, whose 24-for-59 afternoon fell short of Cal’s conference-leading clip of 48.1 percent.
Stanford has now won four of its last six games with the two losses being a one-point heartbreaker at Utah and a four-point loss against Oregon in which the Cardinal led for the first 37 minutes.
Momentum is key for Stanford heading into the Pac-12 tournament this week, as the Cardinal’s poor middle of the season has left it with no chance of receiving an at-large bid to the Big Dance.
“We know that we have to win the tournament [to make the NCAA tournament],” Zimmermann said. “We’re playing with nothing to lose and that’s always a great feeling, because some of the other teams might be a little tighter.”
As the 7th seed in the tournament, Stanford will face Arizona State (10-20, 6-12) in the first round. The Cardinal played the Sun Devils earlier in the year and demolished them, winning 68-44. A victory against Arizona State would give Stanford a rematch with Cal in the second round.
Dawkins feels optimistic about the Cardinal’s chances.
“There are a number of teams that have a chance at winning the Pac-12 tournament,” he said. “It starts with believing, first of all, and it starts with going out there and executing.”
After last night’s victory, Stanford definitely believes it can pull off a Cinderella story and make it to March Madness. All that’s left to do is execute.
Listen to excerpts from both teams’ press conferences below: