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Stanford probably clinched NCAA Tournament berth by beating Utah

Stanford wasn’t playing for a championship in its regular-season finale on Saturday, and neither the Cardinal nor their opponent was ranked.

Nonetheless, Stanford’s hang-on-for-dear-life, 61-60 victory over Utah at Maples Pavilion could have been the most important result in Johnny Dawkins’ six years as Stanford’s coach, because the win probably assured the Cardinal a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Despite blowing an 11-point lead with less than eight minutes left and missing seven straight free throws during a critical late stretch, Stanford (19-11, 10-8 in the Pac-12) came away with a victory that ended a three-game losing streak.

“It was as big a game as I’ve ever played in,” said Stanford junior center Stefan Nastic, who had 14 points on 6-for-6 shooting.

Although there are too many moving parts to say anything for certain, the Cardinal now seem destined for a NCAA Tournament berth, no matter what happens in the Pac-12 tournament. At least that’s what virtually all the websites that project the NCAA Tournament field would have you believe.

“I knew this was an important game,” Dawkins said, “but I never looked any sites to see what’s going on with that (NCAA Tournament) stuff.”

Last March, when addressing Dawkins’ status, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir hinted Stanford needed to reach the NCAA Tournament this season for Dawkins to keep his job.

An NCAA berth seemed assured when Stanford beat UCLA on Feb. 22 for the Cardinal’s fifth win in six games. But the three straight losses since then put Stanford’s at-large berth in jeopardy. The win over Utah may have erased the doubts.

“I would hope so,” said Stanford guard Chasson Randle, who had 22 points and key defensive play. “But we still have some business to take care of.”

Utah (20-10, 9-9) entered the game riding a three-game winning streak, but the Cardinal got out to an early 16-4 lead and held a 54-43 lead with 7:51 left. The Cardinal nearly let it slip away as the Utes took a one-point lead with 2:38 to go.

A Josh Huestis three-point shot with 2:17 to go put the Cardinal back in front by two points, but missed free throws nearly doomed Stanford.

Utah center Dallin Bachynski tied the game at 60-60 with two made foul shots with 55.4 seconds left.

Dwight Powell then produced Stanford’s seventh straight missed foul shot before making the second of two free throws to give the Cardinal a 61-60 lead with 36.1 seconds left.

On Utah’s ensuing possession, Randle crowded Brandon Taylor along the sideline, forcing the Utes point guard into a traveling violation with 1.8 seconds left.

We just wanted to make sure we didn’t give them a good look,” said Dawkins, “and it culminated with Chasson’s great play.”

Briefly: 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh attended the game. He was Stanford’s head coach for four seasons (2007-2010). ...The Pac-12 tournament begins Wednesday in Las Vegas with first-round game involving teams seeded fifth through 12th. The top four seeds play their first games in Thursday's quarterfinals. The title game is Saturday.

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