No team sets out at the beginning of a season hoping to win the NIT. A coach whose team fell short may not admit it in March, but most of them would likely admit in November that they’d rather lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament than win the NIT.
That said, only a handful of teams every season get to raise a championship banner, and that’s exactly what Stanford will get to do after beating Miami 66-64 in overtime in the NIT championship at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
Well before Stanford resigned itself to a spot in the NIT, the Cardinal looked like a safe bet to make the NCAA tournament. Through the middle of January, they were 13-4 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, with non-conference wins over Texas, Wofford and Connecticut. From there, the season fell apart. They lost eight of their final 13 regular season games, and lost by 24 points to Utah in the Pac-12 tournament, falling completely off the bubble and ending up as a No. 2 seed in college basketball’s secondary playoff.
Stanford’s entire season played out over the 45 minutes of basketball on Thursday night. After trailing by one with seven minutes remaining in the first half, the Cardinal went on a 16-4 run to close it out, riding an 11-point lead into the locker room. Chasson Randle scored eight of the 16 points, and had 13 total in the half.
Just like the Cardinal collapsed in the second half of the regular season, so too did they in the second half of the NIT championship. Miami chipped away at Stanford’s lead, cutting it to seven points by the 14-minute mark and four points with eight minutes left. Sheldon McClellan was the catalyst for the Hurricanes, scoring seven points and knocking down a free throw to make it a one possession game with 7:35 remaining. Stanford had just two field goals in the next six minutes, letting Miami draw even on a layup by Omar Sherman.
Over the final minute of the game, the team’s leading scorers traded barbs. Randle made a driving layup to give Stanford a two-point lead, and McClellan answered with a pair of free throws. That exact same sequence repeated itself, and Marcus Allen missed a three on the final possession of regulation to push the game into overtime.
If the first 40 minutes of the game served as a microcosm for Stanford’s regular season, overtime represented its triumph in the NIT championship. The Cardinal didn’t have a field goal during the extra period, but Randle went 6 for 6 from the line. Miami had a final chance to tie or win with three seconds left. An attempt from behind the arc by McClellan came up short, however, and Stanford escaped with a two-point win and its second NIT championship in the past four seasons.
Stanford may not have set out this season to win the NIT, but come next season it will have another banner in Maples Pavilion, and that just may be enough to make this up-and-down season a success.