When Stanford guard Julius Barnes elevated for a three-point shot in the final seconds to force overtime, it appeared he would expand a sterling senior resume.
“When it left my hand, I thought it was going in,” Barnes said. “It felt good off my fingertips.”
But the shot was long, time expired and top-ranked Arizona clinched the conference championship Saturday with a 72-69 escape in the latest installment of this riveting series between the best programs in the West.
It was Arizona’s fourth consecutive victory in Maples Pavilion, while Stanford has won three in a row in Tucson. Average margin of victory in the seven games: 4.6 points.
“They know us, they have the personnel to match-up with us, and they played great,” Arizona center Channing Frye said.
It was hard to find fault with either team in a taut, physical game dominated by the defenses. In fact, Stanford (22-7, 13-4) played better in defeat Saturday than it has in many victories this season. It was tenacious and resilient, rallying each time Arizona (23-2, 15-1) seemed ready to pounce.
“This was a tremendous challenge, and I think the kids responded,” Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery said. “We can build on this. They’re disappointed, but they aren’t down.”
The loss should not tarnish Stanford’s bid for a high seed in the NCAA tournament. If anything, the game might have bolstered its case. Arizona athletic director Jim Livengood, chairman of the selection committee, has now seen the Wildcats and Cardinal play two terrific games.
Stanford won by five points in Tucson a month ago because it played smothering defense and made the big shots in the final minutes, and Arizona won Saturday for the same reason.
As they always do in Maples, the Wildcats’ pressure disrupted Stanford’s half-court attack. They sealed off passing lanes into the low post and challenged Stanford’s perimeter shots, forcing Barnes and Matt Lottich into a 5-of-24 afternoon. The Cardinal relied on offensive rebounds and scramble situations for the bulk of its production.
“Their quickness to the ball caused us some problems,” Montgomery said.
The Wildcats held a 68-67 lead with under a minute remaining when sophomore guard Salim Stoudamire made a hanging jumper from 15 feet. Stanford failed to respond, then Stoudamire made two free throws with 25.5 seconds left to give the Wildcats a five-point advantage.
Rob Little’s layup pulled the Cardinal within 72-69, and when Rick Anderson missed a free throw with 18 second remaining, the Cardinal had a chance to force overtime. But Josh Childress missed a long three-pointer and Barnes missed from the left wing.
More surprising than his miss – Stanford hadn’t lost a close game in six weeks – was Barnes’ response. Sullen after the Richmond loss and frustrated after the Washington defeat, he showed no hint of remorse Saturday.
“A loss to the No. 1 team in the land by three points isn’t bad, especially when we had a chance to pull it out in the end,” he said. “If we had gotten our butts kicked, if we hadn’t played with heart, I’d say the opposite.”