Montgomery likes his 'special' group
As Saturday's amazing scene at Stanford showed, the Cardinal could just run the table in the Pac-10.
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Mike Montgomery usually starts his postgame locker room comments with some constructive criticism.
But he couldn't help himself Saturday: The stoic Stanford coach had to show more emotion. So, for the first time this season, he spoke from his heart.
"He said we're a special group," said Stanford junior Josh Childress. "I was surprised and pleased that he was able to open up to us.
"For him to say we're a special group and to say that he really enjoys coaching us is amazing."
Montgomery couldn't spin this game any other way. Stanford's classic 80-77 buzzer-beating win over Arizona kept the Cardinal undefeated at 20-0 and looking every bit like the best team in the country.
"I'm starting to think this group might be something special," Montgomery said.
The second-ranked Cardinal beat No. 12 Arizona after the Wildcats had stormed back to take a five-point lead with 2:37 remaining.
In the final two minutes, the Cardinal cranked up its defensive aggressiveness and made the kind of shots that "special" teams make to win games.
In the final 44 seconds, the Cardinal forced one turnover that led to a Childress 3-pointer to tie the game at 77-77. And then Matt Lottich forced Salim Stoudamire into a waiting Nick Robinson with three seconds remaining.
Robinson got control of the ball and raced downcourt where he lofted a running 3-pointer over Andre Iguodala that hit all net to win the game.
The ensuing celebration was the perfect storm. You have to understand -- Stanford doesn't beat Arizona at home easily. Arizona had won the past four games here. This is the best rivalry on the West Coast, and the Cardinal fans know that being one of two undefeated teams remaining in the country gets sweeter with each win. Arizona State had the Cardinal beat in Tempe before Childress finished with a putback. Stanford was down 19 points with 17 minutes left at Oregon last week and still won.
So, storming the court after a thrilling last-second shot was warranted.
Stanford's "Sixth Man" student club joined a pile on Robinson. Former Raider and Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett seemed like he was ready to pile on but had to free his wife's foot from a folding chair. Former Stanford golfer Tiger Woods and his fiancÚ were on the scene, hoping Plunkett's wife, Gerry, was OK. They were front and center with their "Sixth Man" shirts on, riding the emotion of this win with every possession.
Gerry Plunkett appeared fine, once she was freed of the chair. It would have been hard for her to complain after watching this game, and watching this team continue to win.
Stanford won its third straight game without Justin Davis, its leading rebounder and starting forward. Davis is out with a knee injury and said he would like to be ready for next Saturday's game against Cal. But the more realistic return is the following week at USC and UCLA.
The Cardinal was without Davis' backup and the team's top scorer off the bench in Matt Haryasz. He tried to play on a bum ankle that he sprained last Tuesday, forcing him to miss both games against Arizona State and Arizona.
But Haryasz said he would definitely play against Cal.
Remember, the Cardinal played the entire non-conference season without Childress, who was missing because of a stress injury in his foot.
That run included wins over Kansas in Anaheim and Gonzaga in Oakland.
Montgomery said the team might have started to get a fear of losing when it lost a nine-point second-half lead. But the Cardinal has such good leadership from Chris Hernandez, Lottich and Robinson that the whole team simply refuses to lose.
Hernandez was in the middle of almost every big play Saturday, although he tried to call a timeout when Robinson got the steal and said luckily the officials didn't see him before Robinson took his winning shot.
Arizona coach Lute Olson called Hernandez the most valuable player in the league and the best point guard. It's hard to argue when you witness how he can control a game and is involved in assists, making critical shots or being a defensive pest.
But the simple fact that Stanford continues to win games with various lineups and different substitution patterns is even more incredible.
The Cardinal played seven games, according to Hernandez, when everyone was healthy. That number should go up as the team gets everyone back for the final few weeks of the Pac-10 season and then into March.
Their motto of "we don't expect to go undefeated but we're not going to lose the next one" was adopted, says Childress, after the Kansas win. That's when Childress said the Stanford players realized they could be pretty good.
"They've handled all of this great," Olson said. "Without Justin Davis and Haryasz, everyone else has stepped up. They've got a very, very mature club and guys understand what they need to do."
Stanford isn't without its flaws. The offense stalled when Arizona cranked up its defensive effort. Arizona went on a 14-0 run at one point to get the lead to five for the Wildcats. So, Montgomery could have easily gone in that direction during his postgame remarks if he had wanted to single out faults.
"I'm so proud of these kids," Montgomery said. "Our goal is to win a conference championship, and other than that this was a great game on television (on ABC), so a lot of people got a chance to see it all. That's all good stuff, and this is another step in what has turned out to be a good season."
Robinson was somewhat matter-of-fact after the game, calmly discussing his shot. He was savvy enough to know the time and score and had looked up to get a read on the situation in the final three seconds. But he's 24 years old and understands how to act in a postgame as well as remain composed in final game situations.
Montgomery credits Stanford's lack of national media exposure and the insular nature of the Stanford campus here in Palo Alto that allow this team to stay grounded. But it's hard to ignore the story here.
And the players aren't shying away from checking the Saint Joseph's or Duke scores to see if the Hawks will lose first or the Blue Devils will fall so Stanford can stand alone, undefeated and No. 1.
"In all honesty, I don't know how we're doing it," Childress said. "It's a tribute to our heart. To hit those two shots and get turnovers in the final (44) seconds shows the kind of character we have."
Childress said the team was rooting for Villanova last Monday to beat Saint Joseph's.
They wouldn't have minded if North Carolina beat Duke last Thursday in Chapel Hill.
Haryasz asked if the Hawks had played yet Saturday. When the answer was yes, and they won, Haryasz laughed, and said, "We're keeping in stride with them, but it took us to hit a shot with .8 seconds left to do it. Incredible."
"Nobody is believing that we're the No. 2 team in the country," Childress said. "We just know we're a good basketball team, one that plays good defense, rebounds and plays fundamentally sound basketball. That's what is keeping us undefeated."
And just might lead them to the national title in April.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.