Kentucky snapped a four-game losing streak in Elite Eight games and the longest Final Four drought in school history with its victory against North Carolina on Sunday. The Wildcats last advanced to the Final Four in 1998, which probably seems like an eternity ago to most UK supporters, and just plain makes me feel old. That year was also the last time Stanford made the Final Four. The Cardinal played the Wildcats in the national semifinals, dropping an 86-85 overtime thriller. Kentucky would go on to beat Utah in the championship game.
It's hard to believe it was 13 years ago that Stanford fans were dancing along with Mark Madsen after the Mad Dog's dunk off an Art Lee steal gave the Cardinal the lead in a come-from-behind win against Rhode Island in the Elite Eight. On the other hand, 13 years was enough to make me forget that the Rams had a chance to tie the game with 5 seconds to play after Lee fouled Tyson Wheeler on a 3-point attempt.
Stanford, a No. 3 seed, was the undisputed underdog in San Antonio. The No. 2 seed Wildcats were as tournament-tested as any team in the field, having played in the previous two national championship games, and were coming off a win against No. 1 seed Duke. The Cardinal wasn't impressed.
Kentucky center Nazr Mohammed headed to the bench after picking up two early fouls and Stanford took advantage, building a 10-point first half lead behind the steady play of Lee, who scored the first game's first 8 points and finished with 26. The Cardinal allowed Kentucky to claw back into the game in the second half, at one point committing seven turnovers in the span of nine posessions. The Wildcats took their first lead of the game with 10:04 to play, but Stanford didn't crumble.
"Like everything, I think it was a little bit them and a little bit us," assistant coach Eric Reveno told reporters after the game. "I mean, there were some unforced errors there, like when Madsen threw that pass into the NCAA committee. Those weren't characteristic of the way we play. But then we snapped out of it, and fought back the way we did. It doesn't surprise me, but we could have quit and didn't."
Madsen, who finished with 11 points and 16 rebounds, converted a three-point play with 3:04 remaining to give Stanford its final lead of the game. Consecutive 3-pointers by tournament Most Outstanding Player Jeff Sheppard gave Kentucky a 72-68 lead with less than 2 minutes to play, but the Cardinal answered with a put-back by Madsen. After Wayne Turner made only one of two free throws, Lee drilled a 3-pointer with 24 seconds to play to tie the game.
The Wildcats scored the first five points of overtime, but couldn't pull away. The Cardinal trailed 86-82 when Peter Sauer hit a 3-pointer with less than 15 seconds remaining. Stanford was looking to foul immediately after the inbounds pass, but forced a jump ball situation instead. The possession arrow was with the Wildcats. On the ensuing inbounds play, the Cardinal fouled Turner, who missed both free throws with 2.6 seconds left. Sauer's 80-foot heave at the buzzer fell short and the Cardinal's remarkable run was over.
After the game, freshman Jarron Collins reflected on Stanford's ability to do what few thought it could--go toe-to-toe with Kentucky.
"Everybody was writing us off. We were watching TV and they were talking about the history of Kentucky and North Carolina. Then they said, `Don't forget about the upset team, Utah,' and then it ended. We've already set a goal: come back next year."
Stanford didn't reach that goal, of course. The Cardinal earned a No. 2 seed in the 1999 tournament, but was upset in the second round by everyone's soon-to-be-favorite Cinderalla for years to come, Gonzaga. Only once since 1998 has the Cardinal been back to the Elite Eight. In 2001, top-seeded Stanford lost to Juan Dixon-led Maryland one game shy of the Final Four.
Here's how a few of the Bay Area's most recognizable scribes described Stanford's loss to Kentucky:
Jon Wilner, for the Los Angeles Daily News:
It was a wondrous game, best of the tournament, with minimal mistakes and the momentum swaying like a cardinal and blue pendulum. There were nine lead changes, 19 different one-point leads and a plethora of clutch shots. The game was so exciting, so well played, that the Final Four coaches' section gave the teams a standing ovation.
Mark Fainaru-Wada, for the San Francisco Examiner:
It seemed like none of it would ever end - Stanford's season, its NCAA Tournament run, the game that left the Cardinal a single basket from playing for the national championship.
And then it all ended - the winningest season in school history, the wild tournament ride that almost ended in St. Louis but just couldn't and the national semifinal game against Kentucky.
Time finally expired on Stanford, though only after a stream of resurrections when all seemed to be lost and only after Arthur Lee took his refuse-to-lose thing to the limit again. It took 45 minutes of basketball, but Kentucky took an 86-85 overtime victory over the Cardinal on Saturday at the Alamodome, and then promptly sped away to the safety of Monday's national title game.
Ray Ratto, for the San Francisco Examiner:
There was a time to mourn, but it passed quickly. With the options being tears or pride, the Stanford Cardinal chose (b). They felt lousy about not reaching the national championship game, angry that they couldn't make one more Monday night, but they would not let the hurt smother them.
With all the pivotal points that changed their fate maybe 20 times in 20 minutes, all the ways they could have chosen the easy way to explain their 86-85 overtime loss to Kentucky in Saturday's first national semifinal, the Cardinal chose instead to do as they had done the entire game - to stand and deliver.
What do you remember about the Cardinal's last Final Four run?