Junior guard Gabe Harris collected the loose ball, took two dribbles and launched a 65-foot shot that hit nothing but net as time expired in the first half. The miracle heave was exactly what an ice-cold Stanford squad needed to right the ship.
The Cardinal (3-0) advanced to the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Tuesday night, beating Colorado State 64-52 in Maples Pavilion. Redshirt senior forward Josh Owens led the way for Stanford with 15 points, with Harris and sophomore guard Aaron Bright contributing 12 apiece in what was a classic tale of two halves.
The first period of play was not so kind to Stanford’s shooting, with the Cardinal firing 12 fewer shots than the Rams and connecting on just 42 percent of those looks. Free-throw shooting once again kept the game tight, with Stanford going 8-for-12 and CSU splitting its only two attempts.
Colorado State streaked out to an eight-point lead early, with redshirt junior guard Wes Eikmeier and junior forward Pierce Hornung hitting back-to-back three-pointers to extend the score to 12-4. Stanford couldn’t answer, starting 3-for-13 from the field before sophomore center Stefan Nastic buried a three from the top of the arc, cutting the lead back to eight at 23-15. But Eikmeier responded with one of his four first-half field goals to give the Rams the biggest lead of the opening period at 31-20 with 4:57 remaining.
Stanford then went on a scoring spree of its own, ending the half on an 11-2 run that culminated in the three-quarter-court buzzer-beater by Harris, bringing the game back to 33-31 at intermission.
“We didn’t come out necessarily how we wanted to play in the first half. [The buzzer-beater] was definitely a pick-me-up going into halftime,” Owens said. “To close it off with that just gave us all kinds of energy going into halftime.”
Harris, Owens and freshman guard Chasson Randle led the Cardinal in scoring in the opening period with six points apiece. Harris, who missed significant time due to injury last season, is just one of many unlikely Stanford players to make an impact early in the season.
“It’s about the players being worthy enough to be out there,” said Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins, “And the competition has been healthy for them.”
Two quick turnovers by Stanford after the break made it look like the momentum from the Harris heave had ended, as Colorado State quickly brought the lead back to five.
The teams went back and forth before a three-pointer by sophomore guard Aaron Bright catalyzed the best offensive stretch of the night for the Card. Bright accounted for 11 points in a 13-2 run that also included a steal and emphatic dunk by Owens, giving Stanford its biggest lead of the game at 49-43. Bright, who led Stanford in scoring in the first two games of the season, came to life in the second half, tallying eight of his 12 points after the break.
But when it looked like the Card was beginning to pull ahead, Colorado State began chipping at the lead. Dawkins made the decision to give Bright and Owens a breather, a move that stagnated the Stanford offense and allowed the Rams to pull the game within four. A controversial tip-slam by Will Bell followed by an Andrew Zimmermann goaltend brought the game to 54-52 with nearly three minutes remaining.
Josh Owens ended a 6-0 run by Colorado State by muscling his way into position and banking home an easy two, bringing the lead back to four. Dawkins, who once again looked unsure of his rotation by playing 11 men in the first 11 minutes, finally seemed to find the lineup he was looking for in Bright, Harris, Mann, sophomore forward Huestis and Owens. The five, who recorded the most minutes on the squad with at least 24 apiece, accounted for 53 of Stanford’s 64 points and secured the win for the Card down the stretch with lockdown defense that held Colorado State scoreless for the final three minutes of the game.
“We would like to narrow it down if we possibly could,” Dawkins said. “We have depth this year. You have different guys stepping up and that provides us some flexibility with our personnel at times.”
Eikmeier, redshirt junior guard Jesse Carr and junior forward Greg Smith, who led the Rams in scoring in the first half, combined to shoot just 4-for-18 in the second period after opening the game 10-for-21.
The win advances Stanford to Madison Square Garden for the semifinal round, where it will take on the winner of today’s game between Oklahoma State and Texas-San Antonio. However, the team first travels to UC-Davis this Friday for a matchup with the Aggies. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.