No Chris, No Crisis

If you were at Maples Pavilion this afternoon, you probably choked on your burnt popcorn at the starting lineup announcement that did not include Chris Hernandez. If you were watching the televised game from home, you may have kicked your unsuspecting pet. But by the end of Saturday's 86-71 handling of a pretty good UNLV squad, it was clear that this team can handle itself with a variety of personnel on the floor.

The home crowd was shocked when they entered Maples, only to see starting point guard Chris Hernandez in street clothes watching the pre-game warmups. Hernandez had hurt his back on Wednesday in practice, and Friday when the back was still a problem he told sophomore Jason Haas that he would need to start. It is precisely the scenario that Stanford fans have been fearing this year. You can stomach Hernandez' half-participation in practices as he limits the load that tough Stanford Basketball practices carry, but to miss complete games is a frightful proposition. Not only did it give Haas his first college starting job and a career high of 33 minutes, but also meant that 6'7" forward Nick Robinson would become the backup and see meaningful point guard action in both halves.

UNLV responded with what Mike Montgomery would call a "pester press" - not earnestly trapping to try and create turnovers, but instead employing pressure to rattle the ballhandler and take both energy and time away from the Stanford offense.

"They kicked up the pressure a little bit," Montgomery notes. "They didn't use fullcourt man pressure except for [Jerel] Blassingame. We anticipated that we would use other guys to bring the ball up more."

Stanford did that particularly in the second half, sending Haas without the ball to half court on several occasions and using Robinson or Matt Lottich to bring the ball up. But that tactic was not one Montgomery employed out of fear of his sophomore ballhandlers' gaffes. Haas only turned the ball over twice in the game - versus five assists.

"Haas can dribble," the coach proclaims. "He's not a guy who will turn it over."

Haas and Robinson did turn the ball over four times in the first half, and the usually clean Matt Lottich had an unprecedented four turnovers of his own. But more disconcerting was the fact that Stanford frequently beat the pressure and failed to attack with the numerical advantages they held when the ball crossed half-court. Dan Grunfeld was backing off open jumpers and Justin Davis was pulling back in two-on-one situations.

Fortunately UNLV was running nothing that resembled a real offense. They would hold the ball until they got a one-on-one matchup they thought they could win, which was typically 6'7" wing forward Romel Beck against any Stanford defender. Beck showed some nifty crossover dribbles to create shots, but the bulk of the Runnin' Rebels scoring came from outside, including all nine of their points in the final seconds of the half on three treys. UNLV shot 5-for-11 from outside in the first half, and Beck scored 15 of their 35 points.

While Robinson had the unusual calling to play seven minutes of point guard in the game, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was shutting down Beck in the second half. The JC transfer managed just two points in the second half on 1-for-4 shooting in 17 minutes.

"I thought Nick did a nice job in the second half on Beck," Montgomery allows. "We said in the locker room that we had to stop him, and Nick accepted the challenge."

When Robinson was bringing up the ball as the point or to spell Haas, UNLV stepped up their three-quarters trapping pressure, which the ailing Chris Hernandez identified from the bench. "I told Nick he had to just go by them if they were going to do that to him," the injured redshirt sophomore recalls. Robinson heeded that advice in the second half when he took the ball coast to coast off a defensive rebound, blowing through a surprised UNLV defense and laying it up.

But the offensive story in this game was the senior surge from Matt Lottich and Justin Davis, who combined for 38 points, including 26 in the first half. Lottich was the team's primary aggressor from the perimeter, while Davis went wild inside. Each had 13 points by halftime, and they were charging the basket against a spread UNLV defense that pressured ballhandlers but had no physical presence inside. The senior pair went 8-for-10 from the free throw line, with the entire team a red-hot 24-for-30 from the charity stripe.

"I don't know how well we executed our offense," Montgomery comments. "We simplified it. But we did get some easy looks off their pressure, and we had opportunities off our offensive rebounding."

Stanford's 13 offensive rebounds nearly matched UNLV's 14 defensive boards. The Cardinal whipped the Rebels overall with a 38-to-18 advantage on the glass, which as a percentage was even more impressive than last year's 54-to-27 result in Vegas. And that physical disparity - both in strength and toughness - in the paint was precisely what keyed Justin Davis to his first fantastic performance of the year.

"Last year J.K. Edwards guarded me," Davis explains. "He was very physical and intimidating. This year Coach [Montgomery] told us they were not as strong in the paint. We needed to get the ball deep."

With a lot of open floor in the interior, Davis excelled with his lateral quickness and used drop-steps and spin moves to find good looks at the basket. The redshirt senior had managed a meager 7.8 points per game with more turnovers than field goals and a viral infection of foul trouble. To say that he was disappointing in his first four games would be an understatment.

But the Davis we saw tonight looked like an entirely different man. He hit his first nine field goal attempts and scored 21 points before a wild prayer of shot in traffic in the final few minutes of action. The best statistic of the night was not his 9-for-10 shooting, however; neither was it the single foul he picked up in 29 minutes of play, and that foul did not come until the 8:40 mark in the second half. His most indicative stat was the beautiful bagel he carried in the turnover column, after averaging a grotesque five per game this season.

"I was kind of surprised that I didn't have any turnovers," Davis admits. "Coach Russell Turner told me with four minutes left in the game that I didn't have any. He told me I had to complete the game without any, and I did it."

Davis also recorded a game-high 10 rebounds, including three on the offensive end. The most telling sign that he was brimming with newfound confidence was the pair of no-look passes he made on the offensive end. He has not been loose or comfortable enough in his previous games to even think about those types of plays.

The bench came through quite nicely in this game, to support the senior leadership of Davis and Lottich. Both Haas and Robinson would nominally be bench players with a healthy starting roster, which put more pressure on other young players to deliver in this tough game. Matt Haryasz and Fred Washington answered the bell with 16 points and seven rebounds. Haryasz played key minutes inside to balance Davis while an ineffective Rob Little (4-for-11, eight points) had four of his shots blocked in the game. Haryasz helped to score in transition on the break, and he took advantage of some of openings in the soft UNLV interior much like Davis.

The 6'10" sophomore scored six of his 10 points in a 8-2 Stanford run in the middle of the second half that pushed the game out of reach for the visitors from the Mountain West. He did it from the free throw line, with a soft short jumper that hugged the front rim and a sweet 16-foot jumper from the top of the key.

Washington played his finest game in his young career, with both his explosiveness and aggressiveness an un-freshmanlike breath of fresh air. In the Kansas game last Saturday, Mike Montgomery never brought Washington into the game, but with Robinson expending a lot of energy on defense and handling the ball, the 6'5" freshman wing was critical this afternoon. Three of his four rebounds came on the offensive end, and I dare say he exploded up to the ball with greater quickness than any Stanford wing I have ever seen. The freshman outhustled all nine veterans on the floor for both teams during his 10 minutes, and he was rewarded with two baskets and five trips to the free throw line. Washington shows absolutely no fear, and you can say that about maybe two other freshman in the last decade of Stanford Basketball - Brevin Knight and Casey Jacobsen. I would liken this frosh's fearlessness to that of Knight, with a hardnosed attitude and toughness that bespeaks an incredibly bright future with rare playmaking abilities.

"Fred just plays," Montgomery lauds. "He goes out and plays hard. He pursues the ball and good things happen for him."

With the combined contributions from the starters and bench players (including nine points for Dan Grunfeld, with 7-for-8 free throw shooting), this was a game that Stanford controlled from tip to final buzzer. They led by double digits for all but 34 seconds in the second half. They made twice as many free throws as UNLV (24 to 12). They dominated the boards.

And against an athletic team with as much harrassment and ball pressure as the Rebels presented, this was a very quality win. UNLV already posted wins over USC and Cal and should be a team playing in the same 64-team field as Stanford come March.

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