A lot of teams claim that they tune out the noise when it comes to things like bracketology and bubble watches. But today’s game was a big one, and the Cardinal knew it, and they didn’t lie about knowing it.
“I was saying to the team before the game, after this, we’ll either be out of the tournament, or we’ll still have a fighting chance,” said Bryce Wills.
With ranked Colorado in town, Stanford had a shot to grab a crucial Quadrant 1 victory for their tournament resume. They played them tough in Boulder, leading for some 30 minutes without Bryce Wills, before Oscar da Silva suffered an injury. The Cardinal may not have been at full health today, but everyone was available. And the difference was stark.
After seeing their 15 point lead dwindle in the second half, Stanford needed someone to step up and get buckets. That someone was Bryce Wills, bad ankle and all. Lukas Kisunas’ layup with 12:30 to go was the last point scored by someone other than Bryce until the final seconds. When it was all said and done, Wills had scored 17 straight for the Cardinal.
“I felt like we needed a spark, and I wanted to be the glue guy to get stuff going,” said Wills. Mind you, he re-injured his ankle Wednesday against Utah. He showed positive signs in practice yesterday, but his status for today was still up in the air.
“It was truly questionable if he was going to play today through warmups,” said Coach Haase. “I’m really proud of what he’s doing as a complete basketball player.”
The growth of Bryce has been remarkable. His good size, remarkable length, and elite agility make him one of the best and most versatile defenders around. The key has always been finding ways for him to contribute on offense. In recent games, he’s found success working in the post against players whose foot speed simply do not compare with his.
“He’s made huge progress throughout the season,” raved Oscar da Silva. And it seems that he is only just scratching the surface.
The Cardinal got off to a big first half, and their energy level could not have been higher. They were jumping into passing lanes, fighting for loose balls, and feverishly attacking offensive rebounds to the tune of 9 early second chance points. The sequence that got it all going, though, may have been one of the best hustle plays I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
Daejon Davis got his hand on a lazy pass, deflecting it into the back court. As the Colorado guard attempted to retrieve the loose ball, Daejon dove to deflect it further down court to a streaking Spencer Jones. The ball looked like it was quickly squirting out of bounds when Jones laid out to grab it, and James Keefe hit the floor next to him. Then, from his back and underneath the basket, he found a cutting Oscar da Silva for a slam. Colorado called a timeout, Haase flew onto the court fired up, and the near capacity crowd rose to its feet to appreciate the effort of the men in Cardinal.
They led by as many as 15 in the first frame, in large part thanks to their ability to get to the rim. Daejon in particularly was dynamic, and he went for 9 points and 5 assists in the half. But Colorado wouldn’t go away, and their late 8-0 run cut the lead to just 7 at the break.
Stanford steadied the ship, particularly with the heroics of Bryce Wills. Things seemed like they were going well, until Daejon suffered an injury while leaping for a rebound. It was scary in the moment, but it turned out to be an aggravation of an ankle injury. He went to the tunnel and got taped, and then re-taped, and ultimately was able to coax his way back to the scorer’s table and into the game.
“Willis Reed - I mean Daejon - is a warrior,” quipped Haase. When the captain re-entered the game, it sent out a message that everything was okay. Still, the margin was just 3 with 3 minutes to go, and the Buffs had the ball with a chance to knot it up.
“We’ve talked all year about trying to be an elite defensive team,” said Haase. “If we’re going to be an elite defensive team, this is when we have to do it.” And they did. Spencer Jones came up with a steal and block down the stretch, Bryce and Ty corralled crucial defensive boards, and they held CU scoreless when it mattered most.
The win not only pushes Stanford to the right side of the bubble for the time being, but it made for a storybook Senior Day. Seniors Kodye Pugh, Trevor Stanback, and Rodney Herenton were the first class to have all four years with Coach Haase. Rodney drew the ceremonial start today, and grabbed a rebound before checking out. In the waning seconds, he made his way back into the game to raucous applause.
While he might not play in many games, his impact on the program is clear. “The term walk-on is a silly thing to say,” said Haase. “He’s an absolute vital part of this program in recruiting, the vibe in the locker room, helping the star players getting through tough times.” He also plays a major role on the scout team in practices.
“He just might be the funniest guy I know, and I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting next to me,” laughed Bryce. “He’s been a big brother of mine. Role model, on and off the court.”
To Rodney, the thing that stuck out the most was the way that the team has progressed in his time on the Farm. “There were times when Maples was empty in years past. But we kept grinding and getting better, and now they’re behind us, it’s amazing.” He plans to go into private equity real estate after he graduates, and no doubt has bright days ahead of him.
The Cardinal have two more big opportunities next week when they travel to the Beaver State to take on the Oregon schools. Both of them are chances at Quad 1 victories, and who knows how many of those will be necessary to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
“We’re all fighting for our basketball lives right now,” said da Silva.