Outcome helps Zags as much as it hurts Cardinal
SPOKANE, Wash. -- This was the weekend for Gonzaga and Stanford. One needed to improve its NCAA Tournament seeding, the other had to strengthen its NCAA Tournament résumé.
It was pretty simple here. Gonzaga had been taking every West Coast Conference team's best shot, beating the likes of San Diego and Saint Mary's with their final possessions. Still, the Zags were void of playing a potential NCAA team, save the Cardinal, between January and March.
Stanford, which dug itself a huge hole early due to non-conference losses to UC Irvine, UC Davis and Montana, had two golden opportunities with road games at Cal and Gonzaga.
Both outcomes hinged on the games' final possessions. Stanford lost both.
So, where do the Cardinal stand?
Stanford is facing an arduous task at 12-9 overall, 8-4 in the Pac-10. Four of its final six games are at Maples Pavilion, with its lone two road games at Washington and Washington State. Still, the Cardinal had little room for error Saturday night and whiffed at a chance to reduce their postseason stress level.
"All year long I've said our margin is very slim and as well as we've played at times, if we don't execute, we're going to come up short," Stanford coach Trent Johnson said of losing at Cal by three Thursday and at Gonzaga, 80-76, on Saturday night.
"We're physically limited in what we can do," Johnson said. "It's real frustrating, real frustrating."
The Cardinal had their moments against the Zags, just like they've had in a host of other games this season. Dan Grunfeld did a decent job on Adam Morrison in the first 20 minutes (while wearing a lighter knee brace for the first time this season; Grunfeld tore his ACL last year). Chris Hernandez hit five of eight 3-pointers, including a big one late to cut the lead to two. But Matt Haryasz was a bit off at times, missing six shots within 10-15 feet and committing four turnovers, a bit high for a center.
"We definitely had two road games against two really good teams [that slipped away]," Haryasz said. "We fought hard. We're disappointed because we didn't get it done."
The reality is Stanford sits in third place in the Pac-10, but without non-conference wins against marquee clubs. And that means the Cardinal are ripe for being leapfrogged by a team like Arizona or Washington if it were to finish higher in the standings.
Gonzaga, after extending the nation's longest home winning streak to 36 games and winning its 11th in a row overall, doesn't have that issue. The Zags are going to win the WCC, yet this was a must-needed seed game. Morrison, who finished with 34 points, said that Gonzaga coach Mark Few kept telling the team to try and get better without measuring itself against its opponents. Translation: The competition the Zags are seeing now isn't as strong as what they'll face in the NCAA Tournament.
"We needed to play a tournament-type team," Morrison said. "I'm not taking anything away from teams in the West Coast Conference, but you know what I mean."
We do. This was a big-time game for the Zags. We're not shilling, but truth is ESPN's College GameDay and Dick Vitale and the crew on Saturday Primetime matter at a place like this. Had the ESPN army showed up for a regular-season WCC game, then maybe it might not have been as pressure-packed an environment. But tossing in a team like Stanford upped the ante.
"We were really excited for this game," Few said. "It was a different game [Saturday night]. Having GameDay here was really exciting. We were shooting too quickly. Out of our first 10 shots, we were shooting on our first pass. Then we were too reticent on defense."
Lost among this game was the stellar performance of Gonzaga's J.P. Batista inside. Without Batista dominating the paint, scoring 24 points on 10-for-17 shooting and grabbing eight boards, the Zags probably get beat. He gave them much-needed balance. Few referred to Batista as the unsung Zag of the night. Earlier Friday, Batista said he was frustrated at times because so much attention is paid to Morrison. But he's still patient enough that he'll get his touches.
Morrison doesn't mind hogging it offensively. While the Zags do need a third option like Derek Raivio for scoring, and playing better defense in the first half is a must, there is nothing like watching Morrison take over a game. He launched two deep 3s that he simply shot over the Cardinal, one of them over a draped Grunfeld, and converted a baseline post move over three Cardinal that were plays only Morrison would take and could make.
"I'm going to shoot the ball regardless," Morrison said of those situations. "Nobody else is going to shoot those balls but me and I'll live with the loss [if they don't go down]."
Said Few, "He's made those all year and it's kind of sad that we expect [him] to. That's what he does and nobody in here is surprised by that. The bigger the shot, the better he is. That's his deal."
Well, Morrison's deal is to take over games when they matter most. He ensured Gonzaga would continue on its quest toward a potential No. 2 NCAA seed at the expense of Stanford, which is desperately searching for a late-season signature win, let alone one on the road. The Cardinal had the look of a tournament team, but not the finish of one, and that's something that must change soon for Stanford to make it to the Dance.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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