Arizona entered Maples Pavilion as the fourth-ranked team in the country, a projected one-seed in March Madness, and fourteen years removed from their previous loss in the building. A couple hours later they left the arena through a horde of ecstatic Stanford students after an 88-79 defeat to the home Cardinal.
Stanford played Arizona tight the final two times they matched up last season. They had them on the ropes in Tucson, and looked like they were about to pull off a stunner in the Pac-12 tournament’s second round. They knew they had a winning game plan for this Wildcat team, and Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd even acknowledged as much.
Arizona likes to get the ball inside. Lithuanian forward Azuolas Tubelis is the frontrunner for Pac-12 Player of the Year and a potential All-American, while his frontcourt running mate Oumar Ballo has been an absolute force in his own right. Step one for the Cardinal was slowing them down.
“If they get paint touches, there's nobody in the country that's going to stop those guys,” said Jerod Haase. “So you gotta try and find a way to limit the touches inside.”
They had to prevent Tubelis and Ballo from getting post position, and they frequently sent an extra man when they did get a catch. The plan worked remarkably well, as they held Tubelis to just 4 points and 0 rebounds, while Ballo also failed to reach double figures.
That came at a cost, though. Committing so much effort to slow the interior game opens up shooters, and graduate guard Courtney Ramey made the most of those opportunities. He cashed in a career-high 8 three point field goals, and had 26 points in total. As a team the Wildcats attempted 35 threes, and made 14 of them.
The teams exchanged blows for much of the first half before a controversial whistle caused the tides to turn. The Cardinal held a 4 point lead with just over 4 minutes in the half as Harrison Ingram seemingly converted a highlight and-one finish. The officials saw it differently. They rewarded Pelle Larsson’s acting job and saddled Harrison with his second personal.
With Ingram on the bench, Arizona immediately went on a run. Part of the game plan for Stanford was running their half court offense through Harrison, and he had been playing that role masterfully to that point. With him on the bench things began to sputter out of control, and three possessions turned into three turnovers. In the blink of an eye the Wildcats rattled off a 13-0 run to claim a 9 point advantage. But the Cardinal responded.
With the clock reading one minute until halftime, Michael O’Connell hit a timely three point field goal. A quick stop later, the Cardinal hurried into a two-for-one and got a free throw from MOC. After another stop they called a timeout to set up a final look with 12 seconds, and the set play worked to perfection with Spencer Jones finding Maxime Raynaud at the rim to beat the buzzer. The Cardinal trailed by just 3 at the break, 44-41.
“I think our whole team had a lot of poise,” said Michael O’Connell. “They went on a run, but we always kept our composure.”
Spencer Jones went scoreless in the first half. He scored 28 points against Arizona in last year’s Pac-12 tournament, and they made a concerted effort to slow him down tonight.
“I could tell early on their game plan was trying to just not let me get the ball, but we were rocking on offense, so I didn't feel the need to,” Spencer said.
Despite trailing by just 3 at the break, Stanford knew they had to get their star going to have a chance. The very first play of the half was a set play for Spencer, and he paid it off with a three from the wing. Whenever the Cardinal needed a bucket, he came through.
Arizona was able to cling to a lead for much of the second half, until a layup from Spencer at the eight minute mark. It was the last two of his 13 straight points for the team. From there, it was off to the races, as the Cardinal proceeded to open up a 17-3 run and take a commanding 11 point lead with 3 minutes remaining.
The sequence that really ignited the crowd was sparked by Harrison Ingram. Leading by 5 at the 4:30 mark, he picked off a lazy pass from Kerr Kriisa and took it all the way for a layup. With the energy already palpable, he took the ensuing defensive rebound up the court, found Brandon Angel at the elbow, and he rifled a touch pass to the corner for a rhythm three from Michael O’Connell. That took the roof off the place.
Arizona had a few chances to make it interesting as the clock wound down, but the Cardinal held onto their cushion and won it by a final of 88-79. The students stormed as much of the court as they could. For the Cardinal, it was their first win against an AP Top-4 opponent since defeating UCLA in January of 2007.
All five Stanford starters finished in double figures, led by a career-high 22 points from Michael O’Connell.
“I was just playing,” Michael said. “I kind of lost myself in the game. I mean, we work for this every day. It's great to get a win like that, but I don't think it comes as a surprise either.”
Harrison Ingram played an all-around strong floor game, finishing with 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. Spencer Jones had 18 points, all after halftime. Brandon Angel added 14, and Maxime Raynaud chipped in 13 points on 6-6 shooting.
The Cardinal finished +18 in the paint, and shot a blazing 10-18 from behind the arc. This was the most efficient offensive performance any team has had against Arizona this season, with an offensive rating of 131.
“We've had a lot of challenges and man, they've stuck with it,” said Jerod Haase. “I believe this deep in my soul: these guys deserve some positive feelings.”
The Cardinal team turned in a performance for the ages. The players jumped around on the court with their classmates, formerly of the student section, for as long as security would let them, and the positive feelings runneth over.