March 2004: Tremendous Gain, Tremendous Pain
March 3, 2009
As the calendar turns to March, veteran Cardinal broadcaster John Platz chronicles Stanford's final month of play during the memorable 2003-04 campaign. Heading into final week of the regular season, Stanford was ranked No. 1 in the nation and riding a school-record 25-game winning streak.
Five years ago this month, the 2003-04 Stanford men's basketball team experienced the most extreme range of on-court emotions the program has ever known during a season that remains the most successful ever as measured by regular-season national ranking, NCAA Tournament seeding and full-season winning percentage.
Seven Stanford games were played in March of 2004. In four of those games, Stanford entered as either the nation's No. 1-ranked team or the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seed. In four others, Stanford played before a national television audience on either CBS or ABC.
One of those games featured a miracle game-winning Stanford shot. Another consisted of a loss that snapped the team's historic season-opening, 26-game winning streak. Another was Stanford's first-ever Pac-10 Tournament championship win.
In short, within that stretch, the Cardinal experienced memorable wins and postgame on-court celebrations. And it also suffered -- in the last of those games - one of the most crushing losses in the program's history.
Here now is a real-time diary of that momentous 17-day period:
Stanford brings an undefeated 25-0 record and a national No. 1 ranking to Washington State's Friel Court. The arena is more full than usual, a frequent happening throughout January and February in Pac-10 arenas where Stanford was the road team.
Despite its 12-14 record, Washington State rises up on this night, playing Stanford tough and taking a lead late in the game. With 25 seconds remaining, the Cougars are ahead, 61-56. Stanford's 25-game, four-month run of perfection appears to be over.
Then, with 17 seconds left, Dan Grunfeld hits a right-corner three-pointer and is fouled on the play. Grunfeld makes the free throw. The Cougars then cannot successfully inbound the ball from the backcourt baseline within five seconds and turns the ball over. With still 17 seconds remaining, Stanford gets the ball trailing, 61-60, and inbounds the ball.
Chris Hernandez loses control of the ball on a dribble-drive and the ball starts rolling toward the sideline and away from the basket. Matt Lottich sprints over, picks up the loose ball and has time only to fling a 25-foot shot toward the basket. As the buzzer goes off, the ball goes in! Three-pointer! Stanford wins 63-61!
A wild on-court celebration ensues, with Josh Childress running from one end of the court to the other, arms flailing with joy. Disbelieving Cougar fans are standing motionless, except for several throwing plastic beverage cups and other debris onto the floor in disgust.
At 26-0, Stanford's perfect record remains intact. In Seattle, Washington guard Nate Robinson, watching on a locker room television, smiles broadly as he witnesses the miracle. His hope -- that Stanford would arrive undefeated and ripe for a takedown -- is intact.
The scene: 10,000 standing-room only fans, ABC and announcer Brent Musburger in the house, and 1,000 noisy Washington students wearing plastic, purple-snouted Husky headgear.
Stanford is off its game early, falling behind and missing shots so frequently and unusually that at one point a Childress corner jumper hits the side of the backboard. Washington is inspired, leads wire-to-wire and sends Stanford to its first defeat, 77-63, ruining the Cardinal's bid to become the first Pac-10 team ever to win all 18 regular-season conference games.
Husky students flood the court and Husky players are carried off on the shoulders of fans. Stanford's No. 1 ranking is gone. Its record is now 26-1 and 17-1 in the Pac 10. The regular season is over. The postseason is about to begin.
The big news is that Justin Davis is returning to the court after a six-week absence due to a knee injury. As the regular-season Pac-10 champion, Stanford is the top seed in the Pac-10 Tournament.
In the quarterfinal game, Stanford defeats Washington State, 68-47. The next night, Stanford knocks off Oregon, 70-63, in the semifinals. In the tournament final -- with announcer Dick Enberg and a CBS national television audience on hand - Stanford gets a revenge matchup with Washington and defeats the Huskies, 77-66. Afterward, there is a midcourt, trophy and team photo ceremony. Childress is named Pac-10 Tournament MVP, just as he had been named the Pac-10's regular season Player of The Year a few days earlier.
On Sunday, March 15, Stanford is selected as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's West Region. Rounds 1 and 2 for the Cardinal will be played in Seattle, a place that holds some unhappy memories for the program. In 1999, Stanford was the West Region's No. 2 seed and lost to No. 10 seed Gonzaga in Seattle's Key Arena. And of course, just eight days earlier, No. 1-ranked Stanford had suffered its first loss of the year at Washington.
Spirits are high among Stanford fans, though perhaps dampened a bit with an awareness that powerful Connecticut is also sent to the West Region, as the No. 2 seed. Players pack their books and computers and board the plane for Seattle on Tuesday, March 16. For them, the first week of the Big Dance -- as the NCAA Tournament is sometimes called -- will coincide with winter-quarter finals, which will be completed by several of the players remotely from Seattle.
Stanford draws Texas-San Antonio, the West Region's No. 16 seed, in the first round. On Wednesday, the coaching staff puts the Cardinal through a vigorous practice. And that night, many of the players are up late handling quarter-end finals and related academic matters.
On Thursday, March 18, the Cardinal plays a bit lethargically and early in the second half, Stanford is ahead by only four. The national upset alert is quickly quelled, however. The Cardinal regroups and wins, 71-45. For the eighth consecutive year, Stanford advances to the second round of March Madness.
Stanford gets No. 8 seed Alabama in round 2. Two days earlier, the Crimson Tide had squeaked by No. 9 seed Southern Illinois by a mere point in the first round.
In the first of the day's two second-round games at Key Arena, former Stanford assistant Trent Johnson's No. 10 seed Nevada Wolf Pack wins its 25th game, upsetting No. 2 seed and Seattle-crowd favorite Gonzaga, 91-72. Would the Key Arena crowd see another upset? Never in NCAA Tournament history had a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed lost in the same building on the same day.
Stanford opens the Alabama game with a lead, maintains it at halftime and, with seven minutes remaining, is comfortably ahead by 13 points. And then the Cardinal hits the wall. Hard.
Stanford suddenly cannot score, inside or outside. Childress fouls out. Calls go against the Cardinal. In the space of seven minutes, Stanford's 13-point lead has become, incredibly, an eight-point deficit. Only 29 seconds remain.
The Cardinal then stages a furious comeback. Lottich hits two three-pointers and Davis hits two free throws, sandwiched around three made free throws by Alabama. The Cardinal trails by only three with six seconds remaining and Alabama guard Earnest Shelton is at the free throw line. Does Stanford have another miracle left in game No. 32, having won games No. 20 (Nick Robinson at Maples) and No. 26 (Lottich at Washington State) with miraculous last-second shots?
Shelton misses both free throws! Stanford, out of timeouts, has a chance but must act quickly. Robinson dribbles the ball hurriedly upcourt and finds Grunfeld open on the right wing. Grunfeld has time to catch and hoist a 25-foot jumper toward the basket with one second remaining. It rims off, no good.
Stanford falls 70-67. The CBS network desk in New York is ready to roll the painful highlights throughout the remaining afternoon and evening of televised second-round games. Another March Madness upset has occurred. It is all over for No. 1 Stanford.
There are tears everywhere in the Stanford locker room. There are tears on the radio postgame show from Matt Haraysz, who despite the glistening eyes manages to verbalize to listeners his deep respect for departing Stanford seniors Lottich, Davis and Joe Kirchofer, whose Cardinal careers have abruptly ended. Two hours later, in Stanford's Seattle hotel lobby, Nevada coach Trent Johnson shows up unexpectedly and is seen consoling Davis. Five years earlier as a Stanford assistant, Johnson had participated in the recruitment of the 2003-04 Stanford seniors including Davis.
Fast forward this Stanford men's basketball diary to today. Looking back, the 2003-04 team's accomplishments were historic. The Cardinal posted a 30-2 record, the highest winning percentage in the program's history and was one of the few Division I teams ever in college basketball to enter March with an undefeated record. An elaborate video chronicle of the 2003-04 season currently resides online on YouTube.
Yes, the video tribute also contains the two painful losses -- two games, two opportunities lost, two suffering Saturdays in Seattle - that are among the most painful defeats in Stanford sports history. It was painful only because of the lofty record, No. 1 national ranking and No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeding that the team had achieved, but remains undeniably the greatest regular season in the program's nearly 100-year history.