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M. Basketball: Cardinal captures second NIT, sends seniors off with rout of Minnesota

After finishing seventh in the Pac-12 during the regular season, Stanford found itself in the postseason for the first time since 2009, competing in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The Cardinal would end up cruising through the bracket and securing the second NIT title in school history, finishing a once-disappointing season with an impressive 26-11 record.

Sophomore guard Aaron Bright averaged 16.8 points per game in the NIT, never scoring below double figures, and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after Stanford dominated Minnesota 75-51 in the final. (RICH SCHULTS/Stanford Athletics)

“This season has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride for us,” said head coach Johnny Dawkins. “We started off so strong, battled through some adversity in the middle and then we ended as strong as we ever could have imagined.”

As the No. 3 seed in its region, Stanford faced No. 6 Cleveland State in the opening round. The Cardinal took an early lead, but the Vikings mounted a furious comeback, cutting the Stanford advantage to just one at the half.

After the break, an early three by Cleveland State gave the Vikings their first lead of the game at 33-31. Forward Anthony Brown then scored six unanswered points as the Cardinal retook control of the game. Stanford pushed the lead as high as 20 points with three minutes remaining, ultimately winning 76-65.

Brown led the Cardinal, as the sophomore complemented his 15 points with a career-high 12 rebounds in one of his greatest games at the Farm. Sophomore guard Aaron Bright also had the first of his many brilliant tournament performances with a game-high 17 points.

In the second round, Stanford found itself pitted against No. 7 Illinois State, which was coming off a stunning overtime upset of No. 2 Ole Miss in the opening round and was looking to do the same to the Cardinal.

The matchup was back and forth for the first half, yet Illinois State began to pull away in the second. The Redbirds took an 11-point lead before Bright took over with nine straight points, and the Cardinal began to even the game up.

With the game tied at 78 and 20 seconds left on the clock, Stanford held the ball hoping for a last-second victory. Unfortunately, a contested three by freshman guard Chasson Randle would fall off the mark, sending the game to overtime. While the Redbirds continued to put up a fight, the Cardinal prevailed 92-88 in the extra session.

The star of the game was again Bright, who put up a game-high 29 points while shooting 11 of 13 from the field. The sophomore hit six threes and also dished out six assists. His backcourt mate Randle added 19 points, while sophomore forward Dwight Powell had a season-high 18 as well as nine rebounds off the bench.

The victory secured Stanford’s spot in the NIT’s Elite Eight, where the Cardinal hosted No. 5 Nevada. The Wolf Pack had not been seriously tested in either of its first two games, defeating both No. 4 Oral Roberts and No. 8 Bucknell with ease.

In front of a home crowd for the last time this season, Stanford put on a show. The Cardinal cruised to a 15-point lead in the first half and didn’t let up, thrashing Nevada, 84-56. Senior center Josh Owens made the most of his final game at Maples Pavilion, pouring in a game-high 15 points, while Randle was his usual brilliant self, also scoring 15 as Stanford headed to the Final Four in New York.

Stanford brought in Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis as its pre-game motivational speaker before the Cardinal’s semifinal matchup with Massachusetts, and his speech propelled the team to play its best basketball of the year.

“If you ain’t pissed off for greatness, then you’re okay with being mediocre,” Lewis told the Stanford players. Unfortunately for the UMass Minutemen, the Card was definitely pissed off for greatness that Tuesday night.

Stanford controlled much of the first half, riding the wave of momentum from Lewis’ pep talk to take an early lead. Nearly every offensive possession resulted in an easy bucket. A pair of 3-pointers from Bright and Randle gave the Cardinal its biggest lead of the first half, as the squad went up 26-14.

But UMass would turn it around, buckling down on defense and heating up offensively. The Minutemen began playing selfless basketball, spreading the ball around and setting themselves up with open shots to go on a quick 9-1 run and pull to within two points of the Card. Stanford could not break away from UMass, and at the end of the first half, Stanford led just 36-33 with a chance to play for the NIT championship on the line.

Neither team managed to find its offensive rhythm for the first few minutes of the second half, as they combined for just two field goals in the first 2:44. The Minutemen managed to keep pace with the Cardinal, answering each Stanford score with a bucket of their own. With just 7:17 remaining, sophomore guard Chaz Williams hit a jumper to tie the game at 52 apiece, but Bright countered almost immediately with a jumper on Stanford’s next possession. The sophomore had a great game for the Cardinal, scoring 13 points off the bench. The Cardinal would not lose their lead, going on to beat UMass 74-64 and earning the chance to play Minnesota in the finals.

The last time Stanford played in the NIT championship game was 1991, when it beat Oklahoma to capture the crown. The Cardinal was hoping for a similar result against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, a No. 6 seed that had played well to earn its bid in the championship game.

In the title matchup, the Cardinal delivered its most impressive performance of the season against a Minnesota team that was completely overwhelmed. Stanford could not have picked a better game to shoot 50 percent from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line, as well as force 22 turnovers and grab 36 rebounds. After senior Jarrett Mann grabbed a steal and converted the transition layup to even the score at 21, Stanford would not look back, closing out the first half on a 10-4 run to take a six-point lead.

The second half would be a completely different story. Stanford scored 11 straight points to open the period, cruising by Minnesota on its way to an easy 75-51 victory. The Cardinal was firing on all cylinders, converting both in the paint and beyond the arc. The guard combination of Randle and Bright led the way, scoring 15 points each to help Stanford earn its first NIT championship in 21 years. Bright’s performance won him Most Valuable Player honors for the tournament.

“We have had good runs before, but never on a stage of this magnitude where you’re playing for a championship,” Dawkins said of the dominant second half. “It says a lot about our kids, their belief and them being able to share in those experiences.”

The season could not have ended on a more positive note for the Card, and their dominant performance provided just a glimpse of things to come. While seniors Mann, Josh Owens, Andrew Zimmerman and Jack Trotter will be missed — along with associate head coach Dick Davey, who is retiring after a storied career — the Cardinal boasts a young core that will help it make a mark on the NCAA next season and hopefully earn an elusive spot in the Big Dance.

With sophomores Bright, Anthony Brown and forward Josh Huestis back next year along with freshman standout Randle, Stanford has the pieces in place to make a run at a Pac-12 title — and maybe even a little more.