Stanford, Washington back in NY for NIT Final 4

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Stanford, Washington back in NY for NIT Final 4

NEW YORK -- After flying all the way across the country for the second time this season, Washington wants to make this trip to Madison Square Garden much more successful than the first one.

The way the Huskies figure it, if they win the NIT championship it will show they truly belonged in the NCAA tournament.

The only No. 1 seed left in the 75th edition of the NIT, Washington faces coach Tubby Smith and his rejuvenated Minnesota team Tuesday night in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader. Stanford plays Massachusetts, driven by Brooklyn-bred point guard Chaz Williams, in the Final Four opener.

Washington (24-10) spent a week in New York during December, taking in two Broadway musicals and taking it on the chin against Marquette and Duke.

RELATED: NCAA scoreboard

Now the Pac-12 regular-season champs are back - with a renewed purpose and a chip on their shoulders.

"It's a lot more of a business trip. We're out here playing for a championship. We're out here on a mission, so it is less fun and more work," said sophomore guard Terrence Ross, a potential NBA prospect averaging 26.3 points in the NIT. "I think coming back is just, it's more of an opportunity to prove to everybody that we should have been in the NCAA tournament."

When the Huskies took Manhattan three months ago, they visited the 9-11 Memorial and scored theater seats for "The Lion King." They also saw "Memphis" and met the cast backstage, with players then writing papers on the shows as part of a two-credit course arranged through a joint project between the school's athletic administration and drama department.

They ate at the famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem, and actor Jim Caviezel, a Washington alum whose father played hoops at UCLA for John Wooden, hosted the Huskies on the set of his CBS television show "Person of Interest."

But when it came time to hit the court, Washington came up empty in two key games at Madison Square Garden. The Huskies lost to then-No. 11 Marquette 79-77 and four days later to then-No. 7 Duke, 86-80.

A victory in either game might have impressed the NCAA tournament selection committee. Instead, the Huskies were left out when the 68-team field was announced March 11, making them the first team to win a regular-season title in a so-called power conference and still miss the NCAAs.

"When the reality set in, we were rock-bottom mentally. So it's difficult. But they've done a good job of bouncing back," coach Lorenzo Romar said Monday. "I think the experience from being here last time should help us this time. I thought we had a little pregame jitters when we were here the first time. I don't think we'll have that. ... I think we're here now really focused on this tournament."

Washington will play No. 6 seed Minnesota (22-14), which sputtered through an injury-plagued season filled with close losses in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.

The Golden Gophers lost star forward Trevor Mbakwe to a season-ending knee injury in their seventh game, and senior center Ralph Sampson III has missed the last five with a sprained right knee. Backup forward Oto Osenieks is still bothered by concussion symptoms, too.

Other than that, though, Smith said the Gophers are healthier than they had been and that's made all the difference. They've reeled off three straight road wins in the NIT, by an average margin of 11 points, against La Salle, Miami and Middle Tennessee - the latter before a raucous crowd of 10,521.

"I think it benefited us because you leave an environment where you're kind of depressed because you didn't make the Big Dance," said Smith, who coached Kentucky to the 1998 national championship. "We had to deal with the vibrating floor at La Salle, then we had to deal with the atmosphere in Miami which was kind of sedate, then you deal with the environment at Middle Tennessee, which was like, the biggest happening it looked like they'd had in forever. I mean, everybody came out there, so it was a packed environment."

Massachusetts, seeded fifth in its corner of the bracket, also won three road games in a row to reach the semifinals. Including the Minutemen and Golden Gophers, only five teams have turned that trick in the NIT.

UMass (25-11) beat Mississippi State in double-overtime and overcame a 17-point second-half deficit in Drexel's steamy gym, snapping the Dragons' 18-game home winning streak.

That earned a trip to the Big Apple and a homecoming for Williams, the 5-foot-9 dynamo who is averaging 22.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the NIT.

"We all wanted to get Chaz home," coach Derek Kellogg said. "I think the guys on the team from the seniors on down wanted to give him the opportunity to get back to New York City and play in Madison Square Garden."

Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN analyst and former Division I coach who hosted Monday's news conference, said Williams is "worth the price of admission." The sophomore point guard, a transfer from Hofstra, expects nearly 100 friends and family members to be in attendance Tuesday night.

"More excited than nervous. Can't get nervous about the game you love," he said.

Kellogg learned his craft as a Massachusetts player and Memphis assistant under coach John Calipari, who has led Kentucky to its second straight Final Four in the NCAA tournament. Kellogg expects a large UMass contingent to make the 3-hour drive from Amherst, Mass., for the semifinal against third-seeded Stanford.

"They look the part of a BCS team, a Pac-12 team, and I'm impressed with how well they're playing right now," he said.

The Cardinal (24-11) also played at Madison Square Garden earlier this season, beating Oklahoma State before losing a tight game to then-No. 5 Syracuse in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

"I think the benefit is we're used to the atmosphere because a lot of the things that we're experiencing now are very similar to what we experienced in the preseason NIT. Of course, you're playing totally different teams," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. "I think it could be a huge springboard for our group. It's how we handle it."

Stanford and Washington both advanced to New York by winning three home games.

Minnesota won the NIT in 1993 and 1998, while Stanford took the 1991 title. Washington and UMass are both looking for their first championship.

Local college players turn heads at respective Pro Days

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AP

Local college players turn heads at respective Pro Days

Last week both Stanford and Cal held “Pro Day,” an annual showcase where each school’s departing players audition for NFL scouts. 

To those unfamiliar with Pro Days, these events typically feature lots of men with stopwatches, a few TV news crews, and a group of players running 40-yard dashes, cone drills and 20-yard shuttles. The objective is to give NFL teams an opportunity to evaluate prospects up close and personal.

Since 1982, the top 300 or so prospects in the country have been invited each year to the NFL Scouting Combine, a centralized evaluation for all pro teams. Subsequent Pro Days held by individual schools provide a stage for players who weren’t invited to the combine. They also offer participants a chance to improve their combine performance or give interested teams another look.

At Cal’s Pro Day on Friday, Khalfani Muhammad turned a lot of heads with a 4.35 40-yard dash, faster than any running back recorded at the combine earlier this month. In fact, Muhammad’s time would have tied for fourth best overall. Wide receiver Chad Hansen also impressed with a 4.45 in the driving rain. Quarterback Davis Webb, who had some accuracy issues at the combine, had a good outing despite throwing a wet ball for much of the day. His predecessor, Jared Goff, was the No. 1 pick in last year’s NFL draft.

Stanford’s “Pro Timing Day” on Thursday attracted a lot of attention because of the presence of two projected first round draft picks — running back Christian McCaffrey and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Over 40 NFL representatives were on hand, including 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and Carolina Panthers head man Ron Rivera. Several sportswriters and local TV anchors covered the proceedings, which were also streamed live on ESPN3.

It was a far cry from the pre-Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw days, when Stanford had few pro prospects and Pro Days drew sparse turnouts. However, 31 Stanford players have been drafted in the last seven years, including four in the first round and six in the second. McCaffrey and Solomon will boost those numbers.

McCaffrey has been the Cardinal’s marquee player for the past two seasons. He set an NCAA record with 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, and then rushed for 1,639 yards in ’16. Thomas had 25 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in the last two seasons and was named the Pac-12’s defensive lineman of the year last fall.

Surprisingly, most pundits now believe Thomas will go higher than McCaffrey in the draft. McCaffrey is currently projected to go middle or late first round. Thomas is expected to go in the top five. In fact, NFL draft guru Mel Kiper now has Thomas being taken with the No. 2 pick in the draft by that team down the road in Santa Clara.

NFL teams are split as to whether McCaffrey can be an every down back. Some see him as more of a complimentary, third-down type. At the combine, he excelled in the 40-yard dash (4.48), vertical jump (37.5”), cone drill (6.57) and both 20 and 60-yard shuttles (4.22 and 11.03), but did only 10 reps in the bench press. His overall rating at the combine was 5.99 (out of a possible 8.0). At Pro Day on Thursday, he put on a brilliant display in a number of receiving drills, showing off the versatility that many teams crave.

Thomas was one of the top performers at the combine, registering a 4.69 40, 30 reps in the bench press, a 126” broad jump, 6.95 cone drill and 4.28 shuttle. His overall rating was 6.85. On Pro Day, he did a number of position specific drills.

Unlike McCaffrey, who elected to skip the Cardinal’s post-season game, Thomas played in the Sun Bowl and elevated his pro stock with several game-changing plays. The NFL’s post-combine analysis noted: “Thomas' bowl performance against North Carolina opened a lot of eyes, as he was all over the field in the Cardinal's win in a way that isn't even reflected in an impressive stat line (seven tackles, two for loss, sack).”

According to one NFL observer at Pro Day, “In the bowl game, Thomas went from the second round to maybe the second pick in the draft.”

Stanford coach David Shaw, understandably, is a huge fan of both players. He chafes at the suggestion McCaffrey can’t be an every down back.

“People may not want to talk about it, but race is a component in that discussion,” he told me at Pro Day. “Some teams want to put Christian in a box. ‘He’s a white running back, another Danny Woodhead.’ Well, he’s not. If you look at the film, what he did at the combine, and here today, he’s more of a Reggie Bush or a Ladainian Tomlinson. He’s a difference maker.”

Shaw also marveled at Thomas’s rise up the draft boards since his Sun Bowl performance.

“That’s the beauty of bowl games,” Shaw said. “What might seem meaningless to one guy can make 10 million dollars for another.”

Stanford rallies to beat Notre Dame, punches ticket to Final Four

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USATSI

Stanford rallies to beat Notre Dame, punches ticket to Final Four

BOX SCORE

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Alanna Smith's jumper with 23 seconds left capped Stanford's rally from a 16-point deficit in the second half, Erica McCall blocked a last-second shot and the Cardinal edged top-seeded Notre Dame 76-75 Sunday to reach its first Final Four since 2014.

Brittany McPhee scored 27 as the second-seeded Cardinal (32-5) won its eighth in a row overall. This was the third straight year Stanford and Notre Dame have met in the NCAA Tournament, with the Cardinal winning twice.

Down 47-31 in the third quarter, Stanford surged to end Notre Dame's 17-game winning streak. The Irish (33-4) had a final shot, but McCall blocked Arike Ogunbowale's drive near the basket.

The win in the Lexington Regional gives Stanford a chance to pursue its third national championship under coach Tara VanDerveer.

Among those in the crowd at Rupp Arena was Jon Samuelson, whose daughter, Karlie, scored 15 for Stanford. A day earlier, he was at the Bridgeport Regional to see another daughter, UConn star Katie Lou Samuelson, help the Huskies win their 110th straight game.

Smith finished with 15 points.

Ogunbowale had 25 and Marina Mabrey 20 for Notre Dame, which had sought its sixth Final Four in seven seasons.

After driving for a basket with 51 seconds left, Smith added her biggest shot for the go-ahead score. Stanford then denied Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen and Ogunbowale on successive attempts in the final 15 seconds to spark a wild celebration.

THE BIG PICTURE:
Stanford once again proved no deficit was too big to overcome. The Cardinal shot 12 of 26 on 3-pointers, Samuelson and McPhee each making five. Not bad, considering Stanford shot 2 of 15 overall in the second quarter while getting outscored 23-7. ... McCall had 15 rebounds.

Notre Dame seemed to do everything right for most of the game but couldn't stop Stanford's perimeter game in the second half. The Irish also made just 11 of 31 shots after halftime and were topped 33-32 on the boards.

UP NEXT:
Stanford faces the South Carolina-Florida State winner in the Final Four in Dallas next weekend.