Stanford celebrates its biggest win of the Dawkins era (Getty Images)
Stanford has been so far removed from the national spotlight during Johnny Dawkins' first five seasons that it's hard to identify the embattled coach's most significant victory prior to Wednesday night.
Maybe it was an exciting one-point home win over UCLA in Dec. 2011. Maybe it was a rout of Minnesota in the NIT title game in March 2012. Maybe it was a 24-point thrashing of tenth-ranked Oregon last January.
All of those dropped down a spot as of Wednesday night, however, thanks to a stunning 53-51 Stanford road win at previously undefeated tenth-ranked Connecticut. The Cardinal trailed by 10 at halftime but befuddled the Huskies in the second half with an aggressive zone defense, holding them to just 13 points on five field goals.
Upsetting UConn is clearly Stanford's biggest victory in six years because it breathes new life into the Cardinal's season and Dawkins' fight to save his job.
Had Stanford (8-2) returned home from its two-game East Coast swing with losses to UConn and to Michigan on Saturday, the Cardinal would have entered Pac-12 play with four losses and no notable wins. Stanford has already lost at home to BYU and on a neutral court against Pittsburgh and the seven teams it had defeated prior to UConn amassed a combined record of 32-41.
Taking zero quality wins into Pac-12 play would have left Stanford with a very difficult path back to NCAA tournament contention, which is not something Dawkins can afford after failing to reach March Madness each of his first five seasons in Palo Alto. Stanford's new athletic director Bernard Muir has made it clear that Dawkins probably has to reach the NCAA tournament with a junior- and senior-laden team in year six to save his job.
"We clearly have set the expectation that we want to be playing this time of the season next year," Muir told the San Jose Mercury News on March 15. "We want to be playing for a (conference) championship. We think we have the caliber of kids who can do that. And we want to play in the NCAA (tournament)."
Defensive breakdowns have been costly in Stanford's two previous losses this season, but the zone defense was the Cardinal's best weapon Wednesday night. It kept UConn's guards out of the lane and turned the Huskies into a 3-point shooting team, something the Huskies did not do well.
Whereas UConn had shot a ridiculous 46.5 percent from behind the arc prior to Stanford's visit, the Huskies regressed to the mean a bit Wednesday night. They went 0 of 13 from 3-point range in the second half, with Shabazz Napier missing all five that he attempted in the final 10 minutes.
Stanford's offense was hardly scintillating, but the Cardinal got 22 points from Chasson Randle and 13 and 10 respectively from Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell to eke out the victory. When Calhoun's shot rimmed out, many of the Cardinal sprinted to the bench with arms raised as though they'd just won an important tournament or postseason game.
In truth, even though this was December not March, the Cardinal have reason to celebrate. Stanford's season can still go either way, but at least for now, there's still hope.
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