Boosted by a 7-0 run to finish out the game, Stanford men’s basketball (13-11, 6-6 Pac-12) lit up Maples Pavilion on Wednesday night with a come-from-behind victory over the USC Trojans (13-12, 6-6) by a final score of 79-76.
The last time the Cardinal hosted the Trojans in Maples Pavilion, the game ended with the highlight of the season: a half-court buzzer-beating prayer of a three-point shot by then freshman Daejon Davis to win the game. This time around, the Cardinal were operating without Davis on the court, as the sophomore point guard remained sidelined for the second straight game with an upper body injury.
It should be no surprise, then, that the deciding play of the game was made by Davis’ replacement in the starting lineup: freshman guard Bryce Wills. With 20 seconds left on the clock, Wills received the inbound pass at half court, and set up by a screen from senior center Josh Sharma, drove through the open lane, drew contact and finished the layup to put the Cardinal up 77-76.
“The coaches just told me to get downhill as fast as I could.” Wills said succinctly, describing his final play.
Wills finished the game with 11 points, six rebounds, and four assists, making his only three-point shot and shooting 4-10 from the field overall.
Despite the immaculate comeback late in the game, the team fell into a deficit for a reason. The Cardinal struggled to get their early shots to fall, beginning the game 1-10 from the floor in the first five minutes of gametime. Sophomore forward Oscar Da Silva came up with the only bucket, scoring on the team’s first possession with an athletic layup.
The Cardinal certainly had a great deal of effort present in their play, however, getting up for athletic blocks and attempted dunks. A major highlight presented itself nearly five minutes into the game when Sharma leaped into the restricted area and swatted a layup five rows into the stands of Maples.
Sharma was everywhere for the Cardinal on Wednesday night, scoring 14 points on 7-9 shooting, with nine rebounds and two blocks. The Cardinal big man could not be stopped, and, even with three personal fouls early in the second, managed to stay on the court for 32 minutes.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and we need to find ways to continue to get him the basketball,” head coach Jerod Haase said about Sharma’s performance.
The rest of the first half saw USC gain a lead and refuse to relinquish it, led by star guard Kevin Porter Jr., who scored 10 of the Trojans’ first half points. At one point in the first, the Trojans led by 14 points. But even with USC making 4-5 three-point attempts in the first half (opposed to Stanford’s meager 1-9), and making 11 free throws to Stanford’s eight, the Cardinal entered the half only down five points, with the score 40-35.
“The guys competed, when we got down 14, we knew we weren’t playing very well. I thought we were getting some good shots, they just weren’t going in,” coach Haase noted.
Besides Sharma’s physical dominance, the driving force behind Stanford’s offense was the play of their forward duo, sophomore KZ Okpala and Da Silva, who combined for 14 of Stanford’s 35 first half points. Da Silva also pulled down six rebounds in the first frame, allowing for second chance opportunities.
The second half opened with a back and forth between the two teams, before Okpala began to heat up, scoring 11 in the second half for a team-leading 18 total points. He also pulled down three boards and picked up three assists.
After a long chase, Stanford eventually closed the gap nearly eight minutes into the second quarter. A sequence that included a Sharma putback, a Wills three, an Okpala layup and a Sharma hook shot put the Cardinal up (52-51) for the first time since they led in the first quarter at 7-6.
The Cardinal rallied behind Sharma to go up 61-56, making 8-9 field goals in a run that saw the 7-foot bearded big man dunk the ball over what felt like every single Trojan head. The Cardinal outscored USC in the paint 48-32 throughout the night. USC quickly made this lead back up as the two teams jostled back and forth.
The Cardinal’s cold three point shooting gave way in the guts of the game, as junior Marcus Sheffield, the man responsible for the team’s only three-point make in the first half, drilled two key late-game shots from behind the arc. With the Cardinal trailing 70-69, Da Silva hit a third clutch triple to regain the lead.
The Cardinal encountered a slight roadbump as they fell into foul trouble late in the game. They entered the final minutes of the game with Da Silva, Okpala and Sharma each with four personals. With 1:10 remaining, and the Trojans up 74-72, Okpala fouled Boatwright and had to exit the game. Boatwright drained both of his free throws, bringing the Trojan lead to 76-72.
Bryce Wills dribbled the ball off his foot on the next possession, and the Cardinal began to play the foul game, intentionally sending the Trojans to the line. It paid off as Derryck Thornton missed both.
In a tense moment, Marcus Sheffield, the hero of the day, hit his fourth three-point shot of the night on the ensuing possession, bringing the seemingly hopeless game within one, 76-75, USC.
“Sheffield brings an old-man attitude, and I mean that in a positive way,” Haase said, reflecting on the calm demeanor of his even-keeled fourth-year junior.
“I know shots are gonna come, and I just knocked them in,” Sheffield commented about his 4-5 three-point shooting night.
Sharma somehow came up with a steal on the perimeter to get the ball back, and Stanford called their final timeout.
The scene was set for Wills’ heroics, as he finished the game-defining layup while drawing the foul. Maples exploded with cheers as the Cardinal took the lead, 77-76, but Wills missed the ensuing free throw.
USC still with 13.2 seconds, calls their final timeout. Boatwright comes up with the ball on the perimeter, shorts the mid range shot, and Wills collects the rebound with 1.2 seconds remaining. Quickly fouled, Wills makes the ensuing one-and-one, putting the game away at 79-76.
“[Oregon] smacked us in the mouth, we didn’t really take it that well in Eugene. This game was kind of a redemption game for us, we had to get back on track,” Wills said after the game.
Claiming the crucial Pac-12 win, Stanford has vaulted themselves back into contention for a top-four seed and a bye in the Pac-12 Tournament in March. The team will look to continue their recent conference success with a home game against UCLA this Saturday at 7pm.
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu.