It's March, so that means it's time for the annual madness of the NCAA Tournament, where every game comes down to the final minutes. Luckily, that's exactly the way the Cardiac Cardinal has played "the vast majority of their games" according to Coach Mike Montgomery, pulling out close wins in the final minutes.
Although Stanford had led by as many as 19 points in the first half, San Diego chipped away all game, and after a 17-6 USD run late in the second half, Stanford found themselves down three, 66-63, with three minutes to play. Up three the Toreros went to their big man, Jason Keep, on the right block. He took a power dribble, lowered his shoulder, had Rob Little moving backward, and put up the right-handed shot. The ball had barely left Keep's hand when it met the long arm of Josh Childress, who left his man to swat the ball to Julius Barnes. As Childress would later say about the play, "All the credit goes to Rob Little. He stayed in front of [Keep] and made him take a bad shot. I happened to be there and blocked it." Keep did not score in the second half. Little shares much of the credit for making Keep work while he was on the floor, with the refs sharing the rest for taking Keep off the floor with their whistles.
Childress had no trouble making his presence felt, and was the best player on the floor all game long, finishing with 22 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in 36 minutes. The stats don't even tell the full story as Childress' hustle saved possessions for the Cardinal, converting turnovers into points. J-Chill was the difference tonight while the other J's struggled. Justin Davis didn't register a point, and Julius Barnes was a mere 5-of-15 from the field.
Although Barnes struggled from the field to reach his 18 points, he was there down the stretch when Stanford needed him most. He scored four consecutive points after Stanford fell behind by three to put the Cardinal up by one, 67-66, with 2:14 remaining. Matt Lottich then took over on back-to-back possessions. First he lobbed it to Rob Little down low for the easy lay-up. Then, after a defensive stop, Lottich drained a three from the left corner. That extended the Stanford lead to six, 72-66, and capped a 9-0 Cardinal run that clinched the game. The fiery Stanford junior finished the game with 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting.
San Diego made their run in the second half by making adjustments, and taking away what Stanford wanted to do on both ends of the floor. USD played a 2-3 zone that halted the Stanford offense, which had become completely dependent on perimeter play with the big men in foul trouble. Julius Barnes agreed, "Their zone threw us off a bit. Instead of attacking the basket and getting it into our post game, we were standing around the perimeter." Just like against U$C.
But this time Stanford survived. Part of the problem was that the post game was on the bench with foul trouble. Justin Davis was in foul trouble the entire game and played only 12 minutes overall. Rob Little, who was charged with guarding the Torreros' big weapon in Jason Keep, the Oklahoma State transfer, had his hands full from the get-go with the 6-10 280-pounder. Keep played just 25 minutes in the game, but Little made a big impact in his 20 minutes. The big Stanford sophomore thrived when Keep left the game, and eight of his 12 points came with Keep on the bench and Stanford clinging to slim leads in the second half.
Stanford was unable to get a defensive stop during that nip-and-tuck second half, because as coach Montgomery noted in his post-game, it seemed like USD was shooting free throws every trip. In fact with three minutes to go in the game, USD was 25-of-32 at the line, while Stanford had only attempted nine the entire game! During a timeout with the teams tied at 61, and Torero small forward Corey Belser about to head to the free throw line, the Stanford coaching staff challenged the team. Coach Mike Montgomery reminded his players that they had been in this situation before, and then called out his leaders. With Justin Davis fouled out, he pointed separately to Julius Barnes, Josh Childress and Matt Lottich, and told them that they had to make the plays if Stanford was going to win its ninth consecutive first round game. They met the challenge and grabbed their 24th victory on the season.
When the brackets were announced last Sunday, San Diego became the national media's trendy pick for a first round upset, over the number four seeded Cardinal. Before the game, the Stanford players all just shook their heads and laughed at the lack of national respect for their 23-win season. The team controlled the tip and the first five minutes, running out to a 9-0 lead to start the game. Stanford's defense was strong inside as Rob Little rejected Jason Keep's first shot attempt, and on the outside where Julius Barnes' steal turned into a breakaway dunk at the other end. He punctuated his dunk by throwing it down hard with two hands, and added a little leg English at the end that got crowd and Coach excited, even though they had different opinions. While the crowd ooh'ed, Montgomery stalked off the bench and growled to the team to "just play the … game." Stanford would extend their run to 16-2 at 14:37 after a Rob Little lay-in, and led by as much as 19 before a 22-6 San Diego to close the half narrowed the lead to just three points.
Finally, expect better. Montgomery after the game was typically understated in describing his feelings as being "a little disappointed with how we played." The Cardinal will face #5 seed Connecticut in the second round Saturday, with a scheduled tip-off time of 12:20 pm Pacific Standard Time.
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