Stanford and Minnesota had the college basketball stage all to themselves Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, two days before the NCAA Final Four.
The Cardinal put on a heck of a show, pummeling the Golden Gophers 75-51 to win the 75th annual National Invitation Tournament.
Stanford, under fourth-year coach Johnny Dawkins, finishes the season 26-11 -- the program's most victories since 2008, the last time the Cardinal made the NCAA tournament.
"This season has been a little bit of a roller coaster ride for us," said Dawkins. "I thought our kids saved the best for last. They played a terrific game from start to finish."
The game was close for most of the first half, the two teams tied at 21 with less than six minutes remaining before intermission. That's when Stanford's Aaron Bright connected on a 3-pointer and was fouled in the process.
The ensuing free throw made it 25-21 with 5:28 remaining.
The Cardinal led 31-25 at halftime, and then scored the first nine points of the second half to make it 40-25. That, in effect, was the knockout blow. Minnesota never recovered.
Stanford led by as many as 30, and the final few minutes of the game were nothing but garbage time.
"We’ve had good runs before," said Dawkins, "but never on a stage of this magnitude, playing for a championship."
Bright and fellow guard Chasson Randle scored 15 points apiece for Stanford, with Bright being named the tournament's most outstanding player.
Rodney Williams led three Minnesota players in double figures with 12 points before fouling out.
"We didn’t do a good job taking care of the ball," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, whose team had 22 turnovers on the night. "We missed, I thought, some easy baskets in the first half. … When you’re missing those shots like that, you get a little frustrated.
"A lot of it had to do with Stanford, and their intensity."
"I thought we did a good job in transition of making them a half-court team," said Dawkins. "Our identity all year long has been to defend, defend, defend. We preached it so much, and I’m just happy to see the kids have success."
After starting the season 10-1 (with the only loss coming against Syracuse, by just six points, also at Madison Square Garden), Stanford lost five of six games from mid-January to early February, and ended up finishing seventh in a weak Pac-12.
But the Cardinal finished the season on a high note, and have reason to feel good about the future. Bright is a sophomore, Randle a freshman, and some other key contributors are underclassmen as well.
"We have a really good core group of young kids that really stepped up throughout this tournament," said Dawkins. "I think they’ve grown up this year, and that’s exciting for our future."
"We know what it takes to win a tournament now," said Bright. "I think we can use this experience for next year, and making a run at March Madness."
As for Minnesota, its final game was very disappointing. But the Golden Gophers, a No. 6 seed in this tournament, won three straight road games to get to the Big Apple, and then beat Washington in overtime in the semifinals two nights ago.
Minnesota finished 23-15 overall, tied for ninth in the Big Ten, but suffered a big blow just seven games into the season when leading scorer Trevor Mbakwe suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the rest of the campaign.
Smith will lose just one senior from this team -- starting center Ralph Sampson III, who also missed the NIT due to injury. And it appears likely Mbakwe will be back after being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
"I learned that they’re as competitive as any group I’ve ever coached," said Smith, when asked what he learned about his team in this tournament. "And I know about their heart, because we had to overcome a lot of adversity.
"I’m just glad we have 'em all coming back, that’s the best thing."
Both teams are looking forward to brighter things in 2012-2013. But only one will be able to look back at an NIT title.
"They’re champions forever," said Dawkins of his 2011-2012 Stanford squad. "That’s something that no one will ever be able to take away from them."