Despite being lackluster for close to a decade, Pac-12 basketball has made a clear resurgence this season. Due to this heightened level of play across the board, many college analysts have projected between three and five teams from the conference earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Stanford (15-9, 6-5 Pac-12), winners of three out of four, barring a close road loss to No. 7 Arizona, was making a push to be one of these teams heading into their matchup with the Arizona State Sun Devils (18-6, 7-4). A road win against the Sun Devils would surely impress voters and boost the Cardinal’s RPI just weeks before March Madness. On Saturday night, Stanford did everything in its power to avoid disappointment.
It became evident early on that both the Cardinal and the Sun Devils came to play. Neither team could establish themselves; they traded buckets for the majority of the first half. After back-to-back 3-pointers by guard Chasson Randle and forward Josh Huestis gave the Card an 8-6 lead, Arizona State’s Jonathan Gilling found teammate Jordan Bachynski cutting towards to basket to tie the game.
At the 13-minute mark with the game tied at 12, Huestis knocked down another 3-pointer to give the Cardinal a 15-12 lead. Just seconds later, to the tune of “anything you can do, I can do better,” Evan Gordon made a 3-pointer of his own to even the game. Soon after, Stanford put together its best offensive stretch of the half, going on a quick 11-0 run on the strength of two 3-pointers by John Gage and a Dwight Powell layup.
After Gage’s second 3-pointer gave the Card a 26-16, Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek called a timeout to help his squad regain its composure. Unfortunately for Sendek, this move did not cool off Gage’s hot hand, as the forward knocked down his third consecutive 3-pointer immediately following the break in play.
The Sun Devils would not go out quietly, however; they battled back just before the half ended to put themselves within striking distance. Guard Jahii Carson converted on a jumper with just over a minute remaining to pull Arizona State to within 11, prompting Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins to call a timeout. It was to no avail, as sophomore Jonathan Gilling knocked down an uncontested 3-pointer with six seconds remaining, sending his team into the locker room down 36-28 at half time.
It appeared early on that Stanford was in complete control in the second half. Huestis scored on a short jumper with 14:47 to put the Cardinal up 48-32, giving its largest lead to that point in the game. But the Sun Devils quietly mounted a comeback on the heels of senior Carrick Felix. After a Dwight Powell layup pushed Stanford’s lead to 13 with 12:03 to play, Felix countered with a 3-pointer. The senior struck again at the nine-minute mark, calmly setting his feet and then drilling another shot from beyond the arc to cut the lead to seven.
It was not until Jahii Carson’s layup brought the score to 60-56, favoring Stanford, with 1:15 remaining that the comeback seemed like a legitimate possibility. However, a missed 3-point attempt by Evan Gordon essentially sealed the deal for the Card, which managed to escape with a much-needed 62-59 victory.
It was a big win for a Stanford team that now finds itself in the mix for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal, after struggling from beyond the arc for much of the season, has enjoyed an incredible amount of success on 3-point attempts. As a team, Stanford shot 10-18 from three, a 55.6 percent clip that essentially won them the game.
“We try to shoot with confidence,” said junior Dwight Powell, who led the team with 22 points. This tactic has clearly been working for the Card, and namely John Gage, who has been lights-out from beyond the arc in the last couple of weeks. Gage, who finished the game with 11 points, made three out of four 3-point shots and was a key player in the Cardinal’s win.
“I tell myself I can only shoot the ball, I can’t control if it goes in,” Gage said. “That takes a lot of the mental pressure off me.”
This tactic has certainly worked for Gage, who has taken on a much larger role for the Card in recent weeks.
Stanford finds itself tied for fight in the Pac-12 with Colorado and in clear striking distance of league-leading Arizona, Oregon and UCLA, who are all 8-3 in conference play. Stanford, now two games back, will have to play almost perfect basketball for the rest of the season in order to vault to the top of the standings.
Next up for the Card are the USC Trojans, who travel to Maples Pavilion on Thursday, February 14. Stanford will look to avoid another upset loss to a USC team that has been dangerous in Pac-12 play.
Contact Mike Schwartz at [email protected].