NEW YORK – Aaron Bright came off the bench to spark Stanford to an NIT title.
The sophomore point guard had 15 points and six assists in Thursday’s 75-51 rout of Minnesota to earn most outstanding player honors, energizing the Cardinal just as the coaches had hoped when they took him out of the starting lineup in mid-February.
“I give him all the credit, because it takes a player buying into something like that before it works, and he bought into his role,” coach Johnny Dawkins said. “When he comes in, he brings us energy … I think it’s hard for teams to prepare for him because he’s not out there right away. When he comes in, it gives us a big lift, and it gives our kids confidence in what they can do.”
The victory brought Stanford’s season full circle. Back in November, the Cardinal let a late lead slip away in the final of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden against a Syracuse team that would earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We were here before in the preseason and we fell short,” Dawkins said. “And so we talked about this experience as how much have we grown: You know, to show we have grown, we’d have to win this tournament.
“And our kids, I think they rallied around that.”
The Golden Gophers aren’t exactly the Orange, but when Stanford took the lead this time, the Cardinal never looked back.
Stanford forced two turnovers to open the second half to take a 10-point lead and stayed up by double figures the rest of the way. The Golden Gophers turned it over 22 times.
The third-seeded Cardinal (26-11) won their second NIT title, the first coming in 1991.
Another young Stanford guard, freshman Chasson Randle, also scored 15 points.
The final minutes turned into a celebration of 3-pointers and fast-break layups for the Cardinal, players on the bench jumping up to cheer on nearly every possession.
Both teams got off to a strong start, but then Stanford turned up the defensive pressure, and when the Golden Gophers (23-15) had good looks, they couldn’t make them. Sixth-seeded Minnesota missed 16 of its last 19 field goals in the first half.
“When you’re missing shots like that, you get a little frustrated or you pick up a foul … you’re a little discouraged,” coach Tubby Smith said.
The Cardinal scored 12 straight points to go ahead 29-21 with 4 1/2 minutes left before the break. Bright had six points, including a four-point play, and two assists during the run, and Stanford drew three charges.
In front of a sparse crowd at the Garden, the atmosphere on the court had some sizzle. Minnesota’s Elliott Eliason and Stanford’s Dwight Powell had to be separated after getting tangled up on a held ball late in the first half, and the two exchanged words again in the second. Powell was later called for a contact technical foul when the Gophers’ Rodney Williams hit the floor face first after being whistled for fouling the Cardinal forward.