Stanford comeback shows it's a contender

STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins hasn’t thought much about the Cardinal sitting atop the Pac-12 standings, but even in December, the view from above has to look awfully nice.

Preseason favorite UCLA is reeling, while conference title contenders Arizona, Cal, Oregon and Washington have all taken their lumps.

For 8-1 Stanford, things are falling into place. That much was made clear after the Cardinal erased a 12-point second-half deficit to pull off a 76-72 win against NC State at Maples Pavilion on Sunday.

One fan raised a large cutout of former football coach Jim Harbaugh’s face as the Cardinal completed their comeback, and now it is Dawkins who is showing signs of turning around a program that has struggled to make an impact on the conference race since his arrival in 2008.

“Looking at long-term goals, this is one of those games that you need to punch your ticket,” said Stanford forward Josh Owens, who had 19 points and 7 rebounds. “That’s how Coach puts it.”

Yes, Stanford is thinking about its postseason résumé. That counts as progress, as does a win in which the Cardinal defeated an ACC team when it didn’t take its first lead until 3:06 remained in the game. Owens was dominant during a late 16-1 run while freshman Chasson Randle (16 points) and sophomore Aaron Bright (15 points) also came through with big moments. Other young players such as Anthony Brown (12 points) and Josh Huestis (6 points, 9 rebounds) made significant contributions off the bench.

The Cardinal beat Oklahoma State convincingly in New York, but couldn’t finish off an upset bid against Syracuse in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Beating an improved NC State team was an important result.

“It says a lot about this group,” Dawkins said. “You never know how guys respond. The kids responded. It makes you feel proud.

“For us, it’s a terrific win. We executed down the stretch.”

But could Stanford compete for a Pac-12 title in a league that hasn’t had any other teams distinguish themselves? Cal could fall out of the rankings after losing to San Diego State, leaving the Pac-12 without a Top 25 team. Before Sunday, the Cardinal had won each of its games by double-digits and had been receiving votes in the polls. Stanford could very well go into the conference season with one loss if it can beat Butler at home later this month.

Meanwhile, the Wolfpack under first-year coach Mark Gottfried was left bemoaning a second straight loss after leading late against Indiana last week as well. NC State was missing top scorer C.J. Leslie for much of the second half while he battled cramps and dehydration. Leslie had scored 14 points before halftime.

“We have to be able to play 40 minutes,” said guard C.J. Williams, who scored 18 points. “Right now, we’re playing 35 minutes. We’re going to get that right.”

Said Leslie: “We have to learn how to finish.”

Stanford apparently has learned that lesson and is now showing it should be taken seriously despite being picked by the media to finish sixth.

“We don’t necessarily pay attention to preseason rankings,” Owens said. “We’ve been building since the end of the last season and the summer.”

Does he consider the Cardinal a Pac-12 title contender?

“Of course. Always.”