From the start of Friday's NCAA tournament contest between No. 7 New Mexico and No. 10 Stanford, it looked like we were headed for a blowout.
Behind a balanced offensive attack, the Stanford Cardinal jumped out to a big early lead in the first half. While New Mexico came back strong after halftime, Stanford was able to emerge in this chippy game with a 58-53 victory.
With the win, Stanford now awaits the winner of Friday's No. 2 Kansas-No. 15 Eastern Kentucky matchup.
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Don't know who Robbie Lemons is?
Even the most hardcore college basketball fan is probably unfamiliar with the reserve Stanford guard, but he played a starring role in sealing the victory on Friday.
With his team clinging to a 54-52 lead and just 23 seconds remaining, the senior calmly nailed a pair of free throws to make it a two-possession game. Former Stanford great and March Madness hero Casey Jacobsen weighed in on Lemons' clutch performance.
After shooting only 12 free throws ALL SEASON, Stanford Senior Robbie Lemons hits both free throws with under 30 sec to go. Respect!— Casey Jacobsen (@cjacobsen23) March 21, 2014
The end of the game was marred by a bevy of fouls on both sides of floor as Stanford didn't even convert a field goal in the final five minutes.
But the Cardinal couldn't be stopped early on as Stanford went 6-for-6 to start the game and built an early 16-4 advantage. Center Stefan Nastic was a major force for the Cardinal in the early going, continuing a recent string of strong production.
Stanford's 6-6 shooting mark includes two buckets from Nastic, who has now made 15 straight field goals. Back in Dec., he hit 14 in a row.— Stanford Men's Hoops (@stanfordbball) March 21, 2014
Meanwhile, the Lobos couldn't get much going against Stanford aside from two early buckets by star Cameron Bairstow.
By the time Chasson Randle converted a layup at the 13:39 mark of the first half, Stanford extended its lead to 20-4. But Lobos guard Deshawn Delaney scored five quick points to spark UNM, which inched even closer on a 3-pointer by Hugh Greenwood with about 11 minutes left before halftime, as noted by Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal.
Hugh Greenwood 3-pointer and it's an 8-0 Lobos run leading to a Stanford timeout. Stanford leads 20-12 (11:05 1H). #MarchMadness— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) March 21, 2014
From there, New Mexico would slowly pick at Stanford's lead. But not before Anthony Brown nailed a pair of three-pointers to help give the Cardinal another commanding 28-14 lead with 7:21 remaining before intermission.
The Stanford offense would cool off from there, hitting just one more field goal before the teams headed to the locker room with the Cardinal leading 32-27.
Ben Weixlmann of Scout.com gave some perspective from Stanford's point of view.
Stanford started out 5-for-5 from the field, and went 6-for-23 the rest of the way. Cardinal up 32-27 at half.— Ben Weixlmann (@BWeixScout) March 21, 2014
Grammer also shared his thoughts on how the Lobos were doing despite slow starts from point guard Kendall Williams and 7-foot center Alex Kirk.
Bad news for UNM: Played poorly & losing in NCAA Tournament, again. Good news: down 5 w/ Williams & Kirk MIA insn't awful. #MarchMadness— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) March 21, 2014
Once the teams got back to the floor, Bairstow showed why he was considered a player to watch in this tournament. The athletic 6'9" Australian looked unstoppable at times, recording four straight buckets to start the second half.
Ryan Fagan of Sporting News weighed in on Bairstow's hot start after halftime.
Cam Bairstow is 4-4 in the second half. If there's any big man in the country with a better midrange jumper, I haven't seen him.— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 21, 2014
In the process, Bairstow helped pull New Mexico to within 37-35 just minutes into the second period. That 20-4 Stanford lead at the beginning of the game was an afterthought by then as the two teams exchanged blows.
Stanford was finally able to slow down the Lobos by switching to a zone defense about five minutes into the second half, and it stifled Bairstow and company. But the Cardinal had issues of their own as Nastic recorded his fourth foul early in the second half after being called for elbowing Kirk in the face on a ticky-tack call.
But Nastic's replacement John Gage came off the bench to hit a big three-pointer at the 13:02 mark to give Stanford a much-needed cushion at 43-38. Drew Shiller of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area gave his thoughts on New Mexico underestimating Gage, a lanky 6'10" senior.
When John Gage caught ball on perimeter, New Mexico didn't seem to defend him like he's a shooter. He's gonna get some looks @stanfordbball— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) March 21, 2014
New Mexico would never lead in the second half, but it eventually pulled even when Cullen Neal hit a driving layup while creating contact with Brown, sending him to the charity stripe with a go-ahead free-throw attempt. But Neal missed the shot, keeping the score at 45-45 with 10 minutes to go.
Like Stanford, New Mexico also had to change up its game plan down low once Kirk picked up two quick fouls midway through the second period. Meanwhile, Bairstow was starting to show signs of fatigue, per Grammer.
Cameron Bairstow doesn't look tired often, but he's starting to look like his legs aren't there on his jumper.— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) March 21, 2014
Chasson Randle would go on to hit a three-pointer for Stanford after Neal's layup, and the Lobos went cold from the field as the Cardinal eventually built a seven-point lead that led to victory.
Randle led Stanford with 23 points, while Nastic and Brown each chipped in 10 for Stanford, who won ugly despite shooting 38.8 percent from the floor. For UNM, Bairstow finished his career with a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds.
Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune speculated on the future of the New Mexico basketball program now that the promising 2013-14 season has come to a close.
Now it really gets iffy for the Lobos. Williams and Bairstow are seniors. And Kirk graduates in May and is considering a 5th-year transfer.— Mark Zeigler (@sdutzeigler) March 21, 2014
For New Mexico, it marks the second straight disappointing early exit following a strong regular season. That's hardly the type of reputation that coach Craig Neal wants to build as he enters his second year at the helm of the program.
That kind of a day for New Mexico, which is really every NCAA tournament day (or night) for New Mexico over the past 40 years #HauntedSchool— Matt Zemek (@MattZemek) March 21, 2014
As for the Cardinal, they are now likely set up for an uphill battle with Kansas, who is primed to advance to the third round.