NEW YORK — The fact Stanford was the final Pac-12 team to lose this season tells you something about that league and something about the Cardinal.
Against what Johnny Dawkins said is “definitely one of the best teams in the nation,” his club played well. And dating back to Wednesday, it’s fair to say Stanford had a prideful showing in its two games at Madison Square Garden — it merely showed its inexperience and hesitancy in the big moment. It was almost as if the Cardinal was a bit surprised to be in it, amid the Orange fan-catalyzed hysteria with four minutes to go in a 60-58 game they had a lead in.
The Garden was rocking near the end; it was then that Stanford fell apart, shooting 1 for 5 with two turnovers and four fouls after the final TV timeout. Syracuse made three field goals and five free throws during the same time span.
To say Stanford lacked a go-to guy, an alpha, a floor leader in the critical stretch of the game is to be completely fair. In fact, the Cardinal’s surprise player, Aaron Bright (listed at 5-11; there’s no chance he’s within two inches of that) — who had only played in two of Stanford’s game heading into this one — was the man on the floor with the most points (13). Bright tried to make something happen, but he was overmatched, and by then the Orange knew he was coming.
“It was really tough to make plays, trying to jump down to [Josh Owens] or (Andrew) Zimmermann or whoever is down there,” Bright said. “He (Syracuse center Fab Melo) had a presence in every pass I made and every shot that I took.”
The runty ringer got rung and hung out to dry, finishing up his day with three fouls, a turnover and no made field goals in the final 6:46.
“Really, they have long arms, they're big inside,” Stanford’s Chasson Randle said. “They really pressured us to make bad decisions sometimes. It was on us. It's what we have to work on and improve on.”
Defensively, it got tougher and tougher as well. Maybe it was the crowd, Syracuse’s talent or just a wave of momentum that couldn’t be ultimately reversed. The Cardinal watched the Orange shot 61 percent from the field, and 44 percent from 3, in the second half.
“Before we arrived, it's so early in the season that you don't really know the make‑up of your team, how good you can be, because it's still early,” Dawkins. “I found out a lot about our guys during these last couple of days.”
Orange coach Jim Boeheim learned something as well: he said without the full-court press his team had, Syracuse wouldn’t have won. The team's worked on it in practice since the start of the season, but it never had to be unleashed like it was during this game. Because of that, Dawkins realized his team's weaknesses in the paint thereafter. The press did what it's supposed to do in throwing the other team off its rhythm, often creating turnovers in the process.
“We didn't get some of the things we normally get out of it,” Dawkins said. “You credit them for playing well down there in the paint. They're physical, they're long. And it was difficult for us to score on them down there.”
We've got some time to figure out how good Stanford is. It held its own against a top-five team and blew out a fringe NCAA tournament squad in Oklahoma State. That could be good enough to be top-four in the meek Pac-12.