ST. LOUIS — Happens every NCAA Tournament.
Some unknown player makes the key pass, the big shot or does a meaningful whatever to pull his team through.
Meet Stanford’s Robbie Lemons.
A senior walk-on and the son of two brain surgeons made two free throws Friday afternoon to clinch a 58-53 victory for the 10th-seeded Cardinal over No. 7 New Mexico in a Midwest Regional second-round game.
Playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2008, Stanford will meet 2-seed Kansas on Sunday at the Scottrade Center.
But without Lemons, the Cardinal’s Johnny Dawkins wouldn’t be moving on in his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach.
“There’s not a player who spends more time on his game and in the gym than Robbie,” said Dawkins, who saw the tournament plenty as a Duke star and assistant coach. “He never approached a game or a practice like he was a walk-on.”
With Stanford (22-12) leading by two points and 23 seconds remaining, New Mexico coach Craig Neal told his team that Lemons was one of three players he wanted fouled.
“I knew he hadn’t played much,” Neal said, “and he hadn’t made many free throws.”
Lemons had just come into the game seven seconds earlier to replace Dwight Powell, who had fouled out. The Lobos did as they were told and fouled Lemons, who was 7 of 12 from the line this season.
“I was just trying to stay focused and not let the moment be bigger than it was,” said Lemons, a Pac-12 all-academic selection. “I tried to look at them as just two free throws.”
That worked. He made them both to make it a two-possession game, allowing Stanford to close out the victory.
“A walk-on having that commitment for four years, for him to go to have a dream of the moment in the NCAA Tournament,” Dawkins said. “You have to be proud of that.”
Not that regular stars of both teams didn’t produce.
It wouldn’t have been a game if New Mexico’s Cameron Bairstow, the Mountain West’s top scorer and a senior from Australia, hadn’t made life difficult for Stanford with his 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting.
He’s the main reason the Lobos (27-7) were able to rally from a 16-point halftime deficit.
And Chasson Randle, Stanford’s junior point guard and leading scorer, hit a clutch three-pointer with a little less than nine minutes remaining after New Mexico pulled into a tie at 45-all.
“Some of us, though, didn’t produce,” said Powell, Stanford’s No. 2 scorer who missed all eight of his shots. “We needed someone like Robbie to step up.”