Even though the Stanford basketball team wasn’t dancing on the postseason stage it wanted to be on this March, it still played like champions on Thursday night, crushing Minnesota 75-51 to capture the National Invitational Tournament title.
The stars of the show in Madison Square Garden were guards Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright, who both had 15 points to lead the Cardinal past the Golden Gophers.
Bright, who was named the NIT’s most outstanding player, also added six assists off the bench to spark the Cardinal to its first NIT title since 1991, and put a final cherry on top of the Cardinal’s superb finish to the season.
After a 15-3 start to the year, including a close loss to No. 1 Syracuse in the Preseason NIT tournament in New York, Stanford faded down the stretch to finish seventh in the Pac-12. But once the Cardinal received its first postseason berth in three years, it crushed everyone in its path on its way to its first postseason title in more than two decades.
“We were here before in the preseason and we fell short,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said after the performance. “And so we talked about this experience as how much have we grown: You know, to show we have grown, we’d have to win this tournament. And our kids, I think they rallied around that.”
Stanford, a three-seed coming into the tournament, closed out its surprising title run by forcing the ball out of the Gophers hands early and often, creating 22 turnovers to stretch a six-point halftime lead into a 24-point blowout.
The Cardinal’s suffocating defense also forced Minnesota to just 37.3 percent shooting – a figure that stood in stark contrast to Stanford 52.7 percent shooting from the floor, including going 6-of-13 from the three-point line.
The lopsided NIT championship game capped a dominant three weeks for the Cardinal, as it was only tested once during its five-game win streak to end the season, notching four double-digit wins and two victories by more than 20 points.
The NIT championship also shows that the Cardinal has a bright future ahead, even though Stanford loses four seniors from the 2012 team – guard Jarrett Mann and forwards Andrew Zimmermann, Jack Trotter and Josh Owens. The Cardinal’s 26 wins are the most for Stanford since the 2007-2008 season, and with Bright, Randle and a talented supporting cast behind them, the NIT title only upped already high expectations for 2013.
“”I’ve been telling everybody it’s great for next year, too,” Bright said. “It’s great for our seniors to go out like that and hopefully it carries into the offseason for us and we’ll just continue to work hard. We know what it takes to win the tournament now. We won five in a row, and I think we are going to use this experience for next year and making a run at the March Madness.”