Second Half Letdown Ends Season

Coming into this highly anticipated NCAA second round game, two obstacles loomed large with Connecticut: Emeka Okafor's defense and the quickness of their guards. The former's rebounding and the latter's scoring proved too much in the final stanza of a game where the Card had stood tall in the first half. Stanford concluded its 24-9 season Saturday with the loss, 85-74.

For the first twenty minutes, the tree was stronger than beast as Stanford, playing one of its best offensive halves of the season, headed into the locker room up 44-40. The second half, where the Huskies outscored the Cardinal 45-30, was a complete reversal as Jim Calhoun unleashed his energized sled dogs. By all accounts, Connecticut "outphysicalled" the Card when it counted, but that doesn't tell the full story. Jim Calhoun, now 21-2 in the first weekend of the tournament at Connecticut said his team "was able to impose our will" on the game in the second half. 

Connecticut began the second half on a 9-3 run that featured standout sophomore center, and Stanford near-miss, Emeka Okafor who finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds on 9-14 shooting from the field. Okafor scored the first six points of the half and on one sequence, missed a layup, then followed Marcus White's missed attempt with a successful follow of his own. Stanford's inability to keep the Huskies off the offensive boards cost them dearly on that possession, and throughout the second half when the Huskies had 14 offensive rebounds.  Okafor himself had six. Ben Gordon, who finished with a game high 29 points, 18 of them in the second half, capped the UConn spurt with a three that put the Huskies up two. These clutch performances earned high marks from Mike Montgomery who called Gordon and Okafor simply "great." 

Stanford fought back and played the Huskies evenly over the next three minutes. Julius Barnes had five points over that stretch including a three and couple of free throws. However, with the score tied at 56 UConn would go on a 9-2 run to go up 58-65 with ten minutes to go. The Cardinal wouldn't get closer than four the rest of the way. The Connecticut run was not incited by Okafor, but by the Huskies perimeter players who proved too explosive and too athletic for Stanford. Up two, Okafor pulled down a defensive rebound, and outletted the ball to Ben Gordon in transition. He found senior Tony Robertson ahead of the play for an alley-oop that Robertson threw down with authority. The "oop" was one of the rare transition baskets for either team as both teams showed by they were conscientious about getting back and proved why they were two of the better defensive teams in their respective leagues this season. 

After the Huskies extended their second half lead to seven, play stagnated a bit as the teams combined for just two field goals over the next three-plus minutes. However, those two field goals equaled the number of fouls Emeka Okafor picked up over that same period, so he headed to the UConn bench with four personals with 6:07 to go in the game. Before he left, Okafor contributed one of the game's highlights. Josh Childress stole the ball along the Stanford left sideline, and led a fastbreak. Okafor was the only Husky back, and instead of pulling it back out or giving the ball up, Childress took it right at the big man, who was nursing three fouls. Okafor timed his jump perfectly, and blocked the ball right out of the Stanford sophomore's hand, and then tracked the ball down to the corner. Unbelievably, it was Okafor's only block on the game, two days after setting a new arena record with seven against BYU. 

Okafor's fourth foul could have been a potentially game changing event as Stanford could have exploited its advantage inside with a rejuvenated Justin Davis or Rob Little, who were both matched up against smaller men. Perhaps, the Stanford guards would drive the lane without having to worry about the Okafor monster inside. Childress clearly was thinking along those same lines. On the first Stanford possession with Okafor on the bench, he crashed his way across the lane left to right, only to throw up a difficult twisting fadeaway from 10 feet. Although Davis pulled down the rebound, he had it stripped. The redshirt junior power forward played his best game since the regular season road trip to U$C, and finished with 19 points and ten rebounds.  Davis converted a layup on the next possession on an aggressive move to cut the UConn lead to four. 

Ben Gordon answered for the Huskies. In the second half, knowing they enjoyed quickness advantages in the backcourt, the Huskies spread the court and ran isolation plays for Gordon and Taliek Brown, who were either able to get shots themselves or create easy looks for their teammates. After Stanford had closed to within four, Gordon drove the left baseline and after collapsing the Stanford defense dished off to Mike Hayes for the easy lay in. A missed three-pointer by Julius Barnes and three Connecticut offense rebounds later, and the UConn lead was up to 10 with two minutes to go. 

The first half was one of Stanford's best twenty minutes of offensive basketball all season. Julius Barnes was on fire, finishing the half with 16 points including a series of threes on wide-open looks in transition, and just as importantly, zero turnovers. However, Barnes was so good (Calhoun called him "magnificent") that he became the focal point of the Connecticut defense. The Connecticut strategy in the second half was to not let the Stanford senior touch the ball. 

Outside of Barnes, Stanford had good balance as well. Little contributed eight, mostly over Okafor, and had the Connecticut big man in early foul trouble. At halftime, Calhoun challenged his big man who had only six points, and claims he told him that if Stanford wasn't taking the ball to him on defense and he wasn't getting blocks, then he needed to hit the boards. Okafor heeded his coach's words. Barnes would call his performance on the glass "beastly."

Justin Davis had six points on 2-of-2 FG and 2-of-2 at the free throw line in the first half. Matt Lottich and Childress added five and six respectively. However, over the rest of the game, the Stanford wings would only combine for two more points. Childress took only three shots in the second half, an inexcusably small number. On the game he shot 2-of-10. A visibly shaken Childress was asked whether his shooting had to do with the Husky defense or something else, maturely took the blame. "It wasn't them. I think it was me….[and I think my shooting] affected me on the other end. I won't let it happen again," he answered in a soft broken voice.  The disheartened Stanford sophomore didn't respond to another question in the postgame press conference. 

Lottich finished the game with only eight points on 3-of-11 shooting and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. Montgomery was fair in pointing out that "for us to win everybody had to step up," and that his two starters simply did not get it done to this afternoon. While Stanford's bench contributed a total of seven points, including Tyler Besecker's late garbage time basket, the UConn bench was a big factor, adding 27 points, paced by Tony Robertson's 11 and Rashad Anderson's 10.

Anyone looking to gripe about the ticky-tack nature of Pac-10 officiating has renewed ammo after this game. Montgomery thought the "game was well officiated with a lot of good no calls." This should have played right into Stanford's hands as it would allow Little and Davis to stay on the floor. However, the guards weren't used to the physical UConn defenders, and on the boards, both coaches identified the physical nature in the second half as a defining feature. For evidence, look no further than Joe Kirchofer pulling down a rebound, and Okafor going over his back and pulling the ball right away from him. No way he gets away with that perfectly legal basketball play in the ballet-like Pac-10.

Julius Barnes was everything one would want out of a disappointed Stanford senior post game. He noted that this year had been a "fun ride" in part because the team did what Coach wanted and had "worked hard and played hard." He was disappointed only because it was his last collegiate game and "nobody likes to lose." Montgomery when asked the same question about disappointment, simply repeated what Barnes  had said that no one likes to lose and he was proud of his team. Over four years Barnes has given all he has to the Stanford basketball program, struggled through confusing role changes, and been a fan favorite. Stanford will sorely miss his scoring from the point, and his no-nonsense attitude toward the game on next year's squad.

I only hope Stanford fans recognize Barnes' contributions for what they have been. Although not a prototypical, vocal leader, his presence, consistency and leadership on a painfully young Stanford team were crucial in forging an identity.

Complete game box score


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