And 1: Stanford 68, Utah 65

Kevin Danna brings his insights and observations from Stanford's sluggish win versus the Utah Runnin' Utes, 68-65, at Maples Pavilion on Thursday evening.

Through a television screen, Vin Diesel once told me that it doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile, winning's winning.

After watching Stanford beat lowly Utah by a score of 68-65, that's a quote the Farm Boys can hang their hat on.

The game wasn't Stanford's best effort of the season by a longshot. The score was way too close for comfort for any Cardinal hopeful. The free throw shooting was, to borrow a euphemism, not so hot.  But when it was all said and done, the Card got the W and are 4-1 in conference play for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

The primary takeaway from this game was that it appeared as if Stanford played the 4-11 record and not the Utah Runnin' Utes. Not that Stanford didn't prepare as hard as they do for any other opponent, but once the teams took the floor and Stanford grinded their way out to a 12-2 lead through the first 10 minutes, it looked as if Stanford took its collective foot off the gas. And then on again…and then off again.

The defensive intensity that stymied the Runnin' Utes into 1-11 shooting to start the game wasn't there, and all of a sudden, the Runnin' Utes started runnin'…and hoopin'.  Getting into the lane, feeding Washburn down low, hitting outside jumpers.

The Utes closed the gap to 20-16, and then Stanford went into "screw this, it's time to put these cats away" mode. White uniforms in the backcourt defensively, trapping the ballhandler just past half, creating turnovers. Just like that, a 10-0 run had put the Cardinal up two touchdowns.

Except they didn't put Utah away. A 7-0 run for the road side to end the half worked just as well as a John White 20-yard rush to paydirt.
Still, it felt as though Stanford was comfortably ahead going into the break. Certainly, there was no way the Fighting Krystkowiaks were going to make a game out of this one in the second half, right?

A Chasson Randle and-1 finish to start off the second frame all but reassured the notion that Utah's arguably best half on the road all season was an aberration.

Except it wasn't. The second coming of Khalid El-Amin hit a jumper. Dijon Farr had a nice layup. Then it was Watkins again, this time from beyond the arc off a Jason Washburn screen. All in all, the Utes hit their first ten field goal attempts of the second half.  Where was this coming from?

When "Jiggy" Watkins hit a step-back three to give Utah its first lead, the game got really serious. All of a sudden, this went from "eventually the Utes will fold" to "hold up, if Stanford doesn't watch out, Utah just might pull this one off".

It never came to the latter phrase in quotations, but it also never moved away from the former. It wasn't until Watkins' final trey at the buzzer was off the mark that this game was out of reach for the Runnin' Utes. 

After the game, Chasson Randle wasn't afraid to point out that the Cardinal didn't earn an A for effort on the defensive end and also noted that guys weren't getting over
quick enough on screens. It was evident on the stat sheet: For a team not known for their offensive prowess, Utah shot 51 percent from the field and 42 percent from beyond the arc.

But of course, a good bit of credit is to be given to the Utes themselves. Josh Watkins proved himself to be a tough guard, using his 211-pound frame to bully past the Cardinal perimeters and get into the paint or use his deceptive quicks to get himself free on the perimeter and knock down one of his three made three-point field goals.
Chris Hines proved to be even tougher. The man had some ridiculous takes to the rack- his reverse to put Utah up 47-44 was unreal. He doesn't lack for confidence, and it showed against Stanford, leading all scorers with 21 points.

Dijon Farr, not known for his scoring abilities, made himself known in Maples for being an efficient scorer and solid rebounder, doubling his season average with 12 points.

As a team, Utah proved itself to be better than their 4-12 record would suggest. This isn't the same team that lost to Cal State Fullerton by 31 points at home; this is a group of individuals that Coach Krystkowiak told me before the game has learned their roles on the floor and aren't making the same mistakes that cost them dearly in the non-conference slate.  If it wasn't for Andrew Zimmermann's injection into the lineup with 10 minutes to play, the Utes probably would have improved to 5-11 and taken themselves out of consideration for a top-three pick in the NFL Draft.

But enter the game Andrew did.  Down 47-44 with 10:10 remaining on the clock, Stanford needed  a boost of energy and passion. Insert Oostburg, who came in and got an offensive rebound on his very first possession. Then posted hard and got a baby hook to go to give Stanford's first bucket in more than three minutes. Later hit an open 15-footer. Took a charge. Dished out dimes - three in total.

When Z is in the game, good things happen for the Card. He immediately elevates the intensity and level of focus of his other four teammates on the floor. He makes the little plays that are oh-so crucial to winning. Four points, two rebounds and three assists in ten minutes of action won't blow ya away if you just look at the box score, but his contributions can't be measured in numbers.

Josh Huestis' contributions tonight can. Mr. Montana owned the second half and gave Stanford the scoring punch necessary to avoid a serious letdown.  "You always gotta be ready when your number is called," Huestis said after the game.
Boy was he ready.

A baker's dozen in points, a Drew Shiller's final collegiate number in rebounds. Outside of his one longball, Great Falls' Finest made a living on the block Thursday. I know he has to be more of a perimeter if he wants to play at the next level, but he's SO effective down low. Quick moves and wiry strength make opposing low-post defenders dull boys.

Huestis' rebounding was part of a very solid Cardinal effort on the glass, as the Farm Boys outboarded the Utes 34-22 and only gave up six offensive rebounds. At the very least, Stanford protected the glass and didn't let the Runnin' Utes turn into the Boardin' Utes and out-will the Cardinal to missed shots.

Shiller said it to me best after the game - it was just a wild night. A combined 6-26 free throwing for both teams. You could say "if only Stanford had made their season average, the Card would have won comfortably," but you could also say "if only Utah had made their season average, the Utes could have won this game." More than anything, free throw shooting is contagious.  You miss a couple early on as a team before you make a couple, and the misses can quickly pile up. That was the case for both teams tonight.

And then there was Coach Dawkins imploring the crowd to make some noise. For a second there, Dawkins literally turned his attention away from the game, looked to the crowd and said, "Come on, we need you!" It worked to perfection, leading to a Josh Owens steal and Josh Huestis three. I haven't seen anything like that before where a coach pleaded to his fans to up the decibel level, but I loved it. If you weren't able to tell in his first 113 games as head coach, No. 114 let you know that this man has a real passion and love for the game of basketball.

When it was all said and done, the Cardinal improved to 14-3, a record they hadn't achieved since the Farm Boys reached the Sweet 16 in 2008. But a much tougher and more explosive Colorado team will make its way into Maples on Saturday afternoon, and a Utah-esque performance won't get it done.

Can the Cardinal improve upon their best conference start since Monty's last year on The Farm? Black (or should I officially say, silver) and gold will try to see to it that they don't.
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