The NCAA Tournament isn’t just for standouts.
Walk-on guard Robbie Lemons hit the biggest free throws in Stanford’s 58-53 victory over New Mexico in a South Region opener on Friday, sending the Cardinal to a date with Kansas on Sunday with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
Lemons, a senior who had attempted 12 free throws this season while making seven, stepped to the line with 23.8 seconds remaining and the Cardinal clinging to a two-point lead.
The Lobos had scored five straight. A misfire or two here and New Mexico, which hadn’t led since 4-3, might have stolen this one at the end.
Lemons had just entered the game after Dwight Powell fouled out, and New Mexico knew precisely whom to foul.
“We fouled the guy we wanted to foul,” New Mexico coach Craig Neal said.
Lemons rattled in the first. The second fell through more cleanly. Stanford had a two-possession lead and was never again seriously threatened.
“I was just trying to stay focused and let the moment be bigger than it was,” said Lemons, who was on scholarship last season, the only time in his college career.
“I am happy for our team,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “But I’m no more happier for anybody on our squad than Robbie.
“As a walk-on, having that commitment for four years, for him to go to the line, you know he had the dream of that moment, the NCAA Tournament on the line, shooting crucial free throws.”
Stanford’s defense was a major factor throughout the game, especially at the game’s beginning and end. The Cardinal raced to a 20-4 lead. New Mexico spent the next 25 minutes in chase mode and finally caught Stanford at 45-45 with 10:07 to play.
But the Lobos went dry again and were outscored 7-0 over the next 6 1/2 minutes. Guard Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk were dreadful. They combined to average 30 points over the season. On Friday, they went a collective one for 12 from the floor.
Stanford, which got 23 from Chasson Randle, won its first NCAA Tournament game since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2008. That was the last time the program played in the tournament.
The NCAA meeting with the Jayhawks will be the second in the programs’ history. The teams met in a 2002 game also with the Sweet 16 at stake. The Jayhawks of Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich beat the Cardinal by 23 en route to the Final Four. That game was in St. Louis, too, but at the Edward Jones Dome.