Las Vegas — Stanford men’s basketball team has known for several weeks that the only path to the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008 was winning four games in four days to earn an automatic berth at the Pac-12 Tournament. The Cardinal (18-14) didn’t get past Day One, losing a thrilling overtime game against Arizona State 89-88 on Wednesday afternoon at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
The first half was a series of back-and-forth pushes by both teams without either really gaining the upper hand. Sun Devils freshman guard Jahii Carson had a coming out party, the conference’s Co-Freshman of the Year showing real star potential as he flashed a variety of hesitation dribbles, step backs and lay-ups on his way to a game-high 34 points—he also set the record for most points by a freshman in tournament history.
Stanford’s initial man-to-man defense was no match for Carson’s quickness, and the Card’s attempt to play zone backfired as the Sun Devils hit shots from all over. ASU (21-11) was 11-22 from behind the arc as a team, while Carson, Carrick Felix and Jonathan Gilling went 10-15 from three-point range.
Carson himself hit 14 of 22 shots and had four assists while just missing the school freshman record of 35 points.
“We tried to squeeze the court on Jahii Carson to shrink the floor so he doesn’t see as much space, and he was still able to squeeze through gaps and made plays,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “He was that good.”
But what put the Cardinal in a hole was the team’s inability to capitalize on the few miscues the Sun Devils made. With a chance to cut a four-point lead to two at the 5:48 mark in the second half, senior Gabe Harris and junior Aaron Bright weren’t on the same page on a two-on-one fast break and ASU took the missed layup the other way to kill Stanford’s momentum and push the lead back to six.
Likewise, when Bright hit a layup and then drained another three (one of a career-high six on the afternoon) to cut the lead to just one with 4:25 to play, Stanford gave up a Carson jump shot and then allowed ASU to convert another Cardinal turnover into an easy layup.
Down by eight with a minute and a half to play, Stanford was forced to foul Arizona State intentionally and hope the Sun Devils missed free throws. They did, at least initially, as Evan Gordon made four straight from the line. But then Bright dropped in another three-ball, Gordon missed the front end of a one-and-one and Huestis drained a three to cut the lead to 77-75 with 53 seconds remaining.
When Stanford fouled Gilling, one of ASU’s best shooters, however, and he calmly sank two more from the line, the Card was in need of a miracle down by four points and just 45 seconds to go.
In what should go down as Stanford’s best play of the year, the Seattle native came down the right side of the floor and launched a deep three. The shot was clean, but Gilling could not say the same about his close out, knocking Bright down and sending him to the line with a chance to tie things up at 79. Bright knocked down the Cardinal’s only free-throw attempt of the game (no typo), and the few hundred Stanford fans who had made the trip down from the Farm roared in approval.
A strong defensive possession for the Card forced Carson into a tough look at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime with the Sun Devils seemingly shocked to have blown an eight-point advantage in under a minute and a half.
And it looked like ASU was still a little shell-shocked as the extra period began. Powell stole the tip-off and battled for several boards before hitting a jump shot to give Stanford an 81-79 lead at the 3:33 mark. Another block from Huestis (his sixth of the game) gave Stanford the ball back with an opportunity to really put pressure on the Sun Devils.
Powell’s turnover ended that threat, however, and Carson made Stanford pay with a three-pointer that put ASU back on top with two minutes to play.
This time, there was no miracle comeback.
Another turnover, this time by senior Andy Brown, led to a layup for Carson, and although Huestis tipped in a loose ball to cut the lead to one, Stanford again had to hope Arizona State missed free throws down the stretch and this time they did not. Gordon went 5-6 at the line in the final 27 seconds and Huestis hit a meaningless three-pointer as the buzzer sounded to provide the final margin, 89-88.
“They played with a sense of desperation,” Dawkins said, “and really stepped up and made shots.”
It was almost a fitting end for a Stanford season filled with bitter losses. The Cardinal slipped to 2-6 in games decided by five points or fewer, and are likely destined for a second-straight season in the NIT, which they won last year.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games,” Dawkins said, “and that’s good thing. We have to learn how to close those games. Some of that comes down to maturity, some of that comes down to guys stepping up and making plays that are there to be made. I thought Aaron is a prime example of that. We don’t look like we have a chance to win that game, he steps up hit a big three that turned into four. That’s stepping up and hitting a big play.
“And that’s what we have to do, and we have to grow into that. Guys have to learn how to do that. You’re fortunate if you have a Jahii Carson, but there aren’t that many Jahii Carson’s in the country. That’s something that guys develop that as they grow up and mature, and that’s part of the process,” Dawkins said.
Powell, who was named the most improved player in the conference and earned a spot on the All-Pac-12 First Team, had 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Bright had 27, Huestis had 17 and junior John Gage had 13, but just five players scored a point for the Cardinal in the game, and only Bright attempted a free-throw (ASU had 17 attempts). That negated Stanford’s lead from behind the arc (15 made to 11 for the Sun Devils) and slight edge in rebounds and assists.
“We had to get to the line more,” Bright said. “I thought in the first half we settled for jump shots instead of just attacking, and that’s what they did to us. They drove the ball and they got to the line more, which is a big part of winning.”
Bright also talked after the game about missing out on a chance to make the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s everybody’s goal before the season starts to make the [NCAA] tourney,” he said. “Whatever tournament that we get into and whatever opportunity that we have, we’re going to try to fulfill it.”
With just one senior out of eligibility next season (Harris), Stanford will have one more year to put the pieces together and return to March Madness.