Over the past several years, Stanford men’s basketball has come tantalizingly close to upsetting a handful of top teams: No. 5 Kentucky in 2009, No. 5 Syracuse in 2011 and No. 1 Arizona in 2014.
This weekend in St. Louis, close just didn’t cut it for the Cardinal.
After holding off seventh-seeded New Mexico 58-53 on Friday, No. 10 seed Stanford (23-12, 10-8 Pac-12) turned the college basketball world upside down on Sunday morning with a 60-57 win against second-seeded Kansas, punching a ticket to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in school history.
Though the Jayhawks (25-10, 14-4 Big 12) were without 7-foot freshman center Joel Embiid, the Big 12 Conference Defensive Player of the Year, the Cardinal still shut down one of the nation’s most dynamic scorers in freshman guard Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins is perhaps the top prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft, yet he was limited to just 4 points — fewer than the totals posted by each of Stanford’s five starters.
“That was [senior forward] Josh Huestis’s assignment and he took it to heart,” said Cardinal head coach Johnny Dawkins. “Then we had help, of course. [Wiggins is] a guy you are not going to guard with one player. I thought the rest of our team was always aware of where he was.”
The team defense that Dawkins has preached over his six-year tenure has taken center stage in Stanford’s first NCAA tournament appearance since he became head coach, with the Cardinal’s 1-3-1 zone keeping Kansas well below its season average of 79.6 points per game. Just as important on Sunday were a solid 17 minutes off the bench by senior forward John Gage, who had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night (1-for-6, 0-for-4 from 3-point range) but filled in when needed for senior big men Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic, who each committed four fouls.
Yet for a Stanford team that has fought through injuries to its depth players all year, the Cardinal’s stars needed to be at their best against Kansas — and they were.
On Saturday, Wiggins and fellow Jayhawks guard Wayne Selden Jr. were asked about Stanford junior guard Chasson Randle, the Pac-12’s second-leading scorer. They responded by giggling and then avoiding the question, apparently not knowing who Randle was.
Randle responded by playing all 40 minutes on Sunday, scoring 13 points and grabbing 6 steals.
“I definitely took it as a challenge,” Randle said of Wiggins and Selden’s comments. “So did my teammates. It wasn’t just a stab at me, it was a stab at our team. And we took it as a challenge. And it was a little bit extra motivation for today’s game.”
Stanford’s other first-team All-Pac-12 representative, Powell, made his presence felt as well. Though he struggled with foul trouble for the second consecutive game, Powell led the Cardinal in scoring with 15 points and bounced back from an 0-for-8 showing from the field against New Mexico. He and Huestis combined for 15 rebounds, and though Kansas forward Tarik Black was able to rack up a game-high 18 points, the Cardinal eventually won the physical battle down low and Black fouled out late in the game.
“We definitely spend a lot of time talking about and preparing for their bigs, and the way they like to attack the rim,” Powell said. “It was definitely one of our focuses to just be physical and have guys in the lane and be ready to help because they were quick on drives.”
Stanford hung tough with Kansas in the early going, eventually building an 18-11 lead with 9:31 left in the first half. But that’s as large as the Cardinal’s advantage would get in the opening frame, and a turnover on the final possession of the first half allowed Conner Frankamp to sink a 3 at the buzzer to give the Jayhawks a 24-22 lead.
Kansas would erase another seven-point Stanford lead in the second half with a suffocating full-court press, and a Perry Ellis dunk knotted the game up at 49 with five minutes left. On the Cardinal’s next trip down the court, Powell, with four fouls, drove into the key and willed it home with one hand to put Stanford back on top.
Riding a one-possession lead into the final minute, the Cardinal turned to their veterans to finish off a Kansas team that started three underclassmen — and had lost its lone starting senior, the fouled-out Black. A Wiggins turnover and a missed Kansas layup sent Powell and forward Anthony Brown to the line six times, and the seniors delivered with five made free throws to make it 58-51.
The Jayhawks weren’t done just yet. Frankamp sunk two desperate 3-pointers, sandwiched around another Brown free throw, to cut the Cardinal’s lead to just two points with 18 seconds remaining.
Brown’s sixth free throw of the night gave Stanford a three-point cushion at 60-57 with 13 seconds left before he missed the second attempt. But Frankamp’s final prayer missed wide and bounced straight to Powell with just a second remaining, and the Cardinal moved on to the Sweet 16 despite shooting 0-for-9 from 3-point range and losing the turnover battle.
“Every season is like a lifetime,” Powell said. “Obviously you will have your ups and downs throughout different games and throughout different stretches of games. But from day one before we even started preseason we always had a goal to make the tournament and to make a run. And we never lost sight of that and never lost hope, and we never stopped fighting for that every single game regardless of how things were going.”
Though the Cardinal certainly played the Cinderella in Sunday’s dogfight, they will actually be the favorites in their Sweet 16 matchup against No. 11 seed Dayton, which advanced by upsetting sixth-seeded Ohio State and third-seeded Syracuse by a combined three points.
Should Stanford win that game, which tips off in Memphis at 4:15 p.m. PDT on Thursday, it would face either No. 1 seed Florida or No. 4 seed UCLA with a spot in the Final Four on the line. The Cardinal haven’t reached the Elite Eight since 2001, and their only Final Four appearance came in 1998.
Stanford reached its showdown with Kansas by jumping out to a 20-4 lead against the Lobos (27-7, 15-3 Mountain West) — and then hanging on for dear life the rest of the way.
New Mexico whittled the Cardinal’s advantage to five points at halftime before tying the game with 10 minutes left behind the dominant performance of big man Cameron Bairstow, who would finish with 24 points. But a Randle 3 restored Stanford’s lead for good, and a pair of big free throws down the stretch by former walk-on Robbie Lemons secured the 58-53 victory.
Stanford got just 3 points from Powell, who fouled out in the final minute, but 23 from Randle and 10 apiece from Nastic and Anthony Brown were just enough.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.