Stanford's men's basketball trip to New York City was looking pretty good. Looks can be deceiving.
The Cardinal was up six points on No. 5 Syracuse with about 4½ minutes to play in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. It appeared a third trip to the tournament final would end with a Tip-Off title.
That was before the Orange's 15-3 run to close the game, sending Stanford to its first loss of the season, 69-63.
"It was a great game, a hard-fought game," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said, "Give Syracuse a lot of credit down the stretch. They made big plays. Kris Joseph stepped up and made big shots and they defended well out of the zone. It was a great effort down the stretch and they were able to close the game."
The Cardinal looked impressive in an easy win over Oklahoma State in the semifinals. What was a young team last season looked like a much more experienced squad against the Cowboys and for almost all of Friday's game.
"Before we arrived it was so early in the season. You don't really know the makeup of your team and how good you can be," Dawkins said. "We found out a lot. We can be pretty good. The way we competed against good teams, this will help us improve things we have to work on and that will help us continue on the path to improving."
Dawkins was disappointed with the loss but not with his team.
"There's a process to it and those kids have been in that situation before and have learned from it," he said, referring to Syracuse. "We're still a developing team and that's what excites me tonight. I'm looking forward to working with my group."
Turnovers will be one of the main topics when coach and team get together again on the West Coast.
"Twenty-four turnovers makes it difficult to win," he said. "They forced a lot of them. You have to be sharp and crisp with your passes. You have to value the basketball. They're one of the best teams in the nation."
Syracuse couldn't get in front of Stanford until the Orange started to put on full-court pressure and getting some easy baskets.
"We played 40 minutes of good defense, 35 minutes of horrendous offense and 3 to 4 minutes of full-court pressure to get back in the game," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "They outplayed us the whole game."
The Orange (6-0) were never able to make a run against Stanford until the game's final 4 minutes, when they made all five of their shots from the field and five of seven free throws. They forced the Cardinal (5-1) into 24 turnovers, including three in the closing stretch against the pressure.
Aaron Bright had 13 points for Stanford, which led 60-54 with 4:27 to go on two free throws by freshman Chasson Randle.
Randle had 12 points for the Cardinal, while John Gage added a career-high 10, six more than he scored all season.
Stanford struggled against Syracuse's 2-3 zone, but it was controlling the ball rather than making shots that did in the Cardinal. They shot 42.9 percent from the field (24 of 56), but the turnovers were converted into 25 points by Syracuse. The Cardinal outrebounded the Orange 36-34 and that led to a 16-11 advantage in second-chance points.
"It's awful. It's never good when you lose, especially when you were up the whole game," Bright said. "Syracuse played great down the stretch and we weren't able to make the same plays."
Nnemkadi Ogwumike is a force in the paint. When her Stanford teammates finally got her the ball there, it was no contest.
Ogwumike scored a season-high 34 points to go with 13 rebounds Friday, leading the way to an 80-64 victory over Xavier.
The Cardinal (4-1) shook off a 10-point loss at No. 2 Connecticut on Monday and a slow first half against Xavier (1-3), which did a good job clamping down on the perimeter. The Musketeers couldn't handle Ogwumike once she got going.
"I think maybe it was too much Nneka," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said.
Stanford had a tough time shooting at UConn, making 37 percent from the field. The Cardinal was 1 of 10 from behind the arc in the first half against Xavier, which had a couple of brief leads and kept it close by containing Ogwumike.
The senior forward didn't sense any hangover from the UConn loss.
"It almost seems people are more focused because of what happened," she said. "What we learned is it shouldn't take us playing the way we were on Monday to focus. It gives the young players perspective on what it's going to be like if we want to get to where Stanford is used to being. I think the focus was totally fine."
The focus at the start of the second half was Ogwumike, who made bank shots, hit a fadeaway jumper and had putbacks during a 19-5 run that put the Cardinal in control. She scored 11 of Stanford's first 15 points in the half.
"Nneka is a phenomenal basketball player," first-year Xavier coach Amy Waugh said. "She's an All-American who just plays so hard on every possession. We tried to limit her around the basket as much as we can, dare her to shoot some jump shots. She's just very relentless and continued to go at us."
Xavier kept close for a half by driving into the heart of Stanford's defense and drawing fouls. The Musketeers made all 11 free throws in the first half.
When Ogwumike asserted herself, Xavier was in trouble.
"They were very physical," VanDerveer said. "They were very prepared for us. I don't think we played particularly well in the first half, but that's a credit to them. We struggled from the perimeter against them in the Elite Eight, too. Nneka really got things going."