I drew some flak for my gameday article that called out the underperforming aspects of this Stanford Basketball team, but I was just being honest when I though some balance was needed. The Cardinal had yet to put together anything remotely resembling a complete game, while blights of turnovers, three-point shooting and foul trouble were all too present. And now with that same honesty I can enthusiastically report that the #9 (and rising) Stanford squad put their first fantastic foray in this 2003-04 season. They surely needed it Saturday night, playing against a game Gonzaga team that stands above all others on Stanford's preseason schedule (yes, better than Kansas).
The Card did their job so thoroughly in this Pete Newell Challenge victory that a barrage of five three-pointers by Gonzaga in the final 90 seconds of the game chipped the lead down to a solid seven-point margin. Indeed, Stanford led almost the entire second half by double digits. A big reason they presented such a formidable lead through so much of the game was the diversity of Stanford's contributions. Three different players had big offensive games, and four players delivered strong rebounding performances. Two players combined for perfect 10-for-10 free throw shooting in the final 1:15. Ball movement for the entire team was excellent, with a minimum of turnovers. They defended a very deep and versatile team quite well, and they did so without committing hurtful fouls.
This was good. This was really good.
"You can't help but be pleased," says an understated Mike Montgomery.
The tone early in the game was set by Stanford's frontcourt pair, with junior center Rob Little putting down the Card's first six points, and doing so with aggressive but controlled play attacking the basket. Then Justin Davis poked a ball loose and took it to the other end of the court for a foul and three-point play. Davis next intercepted a Gonzaga pass and deflected the ball to Nick Robinson, who drove the floor and dished to a streaking Matt Lottich for a lay-in. That pushed Stanford to a quick 11-5 lead, from which they never looked back. Little and Davis combined for 19 points and nine boards in the first half on 9-of-14 shooting and just two total fouls. Three factors worked in their favor for havoc-wreaking in that first stanza:
- The officials called a slightly loose but consistent and largely predictable game. Absent the surprises, the Stanford big men knew how to stay out of foul trouble.
- Gonzaga post terror Ronny Turiaf picked up a lightning-quick two fouls in the opening minutes of the game and went to the bench That loosened up the interior offensively for Little and Davis, as well as taking away the threat on the other end that is so famous for drawing fouls.
- Mark Few defensively put an emphasis on stopping Stanford's perimeter opportunities, which left the Cardinal bigs in favorable positions.
"We noticed they weren't doubling down," Davis describes. "We were pretty much one-on-one. I felt I had the ability to make one quick move and score."
Davis and Little drove the engine inside and were the backbone of the 39-27 halftime lead, including a Davis dunk putback in the closing seconds. If Gonzaga's emphasis was on stopping Lottich from hurting them from long range, they got their wish. He only got off two attempts from behind the arc in the whole half, and his make with 4:04 remaining was the first for Stanford in the game.
"They were flying at him early," Montgomery says of the defense on Lottich. "They were not going to let him get an open shot."
But the Zags were still losing the war despite winning that battle, trailing by 12 and getting outrebounded 23-16 in the first half. Few decided to pack things in and stop the bleeding in the paint. He instead opened a gushing wound on the outside.
"They played a lot of zone in the second half," Lottich comments. "I knew I was going to have some chances to make some shots."
Stanford was just 2-for-6 from outside in the first half, but Lottich led a long-range assault in the second stanza. All he did was stroke all five of his second half three-point attempts, part of his 25-point outburst to follow his nine points in the first half. And all of those shots, it seemed, came at clutch times to protect or extend Stanford's lead. The biggest may have come with just over four minutes left in the game, as Gonzaga had chipped down a 16-point lead to just seven. Blake Stepp had drained a three on the other end off a Stanford turnover, and the momentum was palpably shifting to Gonzaga's corner. Lottich canned a trey on the very next possession, though, and the entire Stanford fanbase in attendance let out a huge collective sigh of relief.
The Zags, who had been frustrated most of the game in trying to get their customary looks on the perimeter, became bolder and put up tough shots that seemingly all went down. Each time Stanford answered with a deuce or pair of free throws, but Gonzaga chipped away shot by shot.
"When you are trying to come back," Stepp explains, "you take some shots you might not normally take. The made it tough [to shoot] all game."
The strategy was to hit their shots and then foul Stanford immediately, as the clock very slowly ticked down the final two minutes, and it looked like a good bet. Stanford was just 4-for-10 from the charity stripe in the first 38-plus minutes of the game, but Chris Hernandez (6/6) and Matt Lottich made sure they possessed the ball and hit every opportunity at the line.
The final tally was a deceptive 87-80. Only an obscene shooting display in desperation time kept the margin under double digits, which was what this game deserved with how Stanford executed on offense and defense.
"From the looks of it, they wanted the game more than we did," Gonzaga coach Mark Few laments afterward. "Stanford pretty much outcompeted us in all part of the game. I think we were just reactive instead of proactive. Stanford certainly was proactive - no question about that."
Five nights after the senior Lottich admitted his team did not get as "up" for a lax Florida International performance as they would for a Kansas or Gonzaga game, he fulfilled his own implicit prophesy. When the final buzzer sounded on this night in Oakland, Lottich had notched a career-high of 34 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including 6-for-7 outside. That output crushed his previous career highs of 23 at home against Oregon State and away and Arizona last year. The last time any Stanford player had broken 30 points was the Julius Barnes one-man show at Oregon State (33).
"I thought the kids got ready to play what they knew was a good team," Montgomery opines. "We had a week basically to prepare, and you don't usually get that. Gonzaga runs a lot of stuff."
Justin Davis finished with 16 points and eight boards (though the official scorer's error cost him two points and one rebound) while Rob Little put down 14 points and seven boards. Matt Haryasz was limited by first half foul trouble, but he put in two huge baskets in the middle of the second half and recorded six huge rebounds in just 14 minutes. Nick Robinson attempted one very early three-pointer and then missed a few other plays around the basket, but he grabbed six hustle rebounds and moved the ball (often in transition) for eight assists. Lottich also recorded seven assists. As a team, Stanford had 23 assists to just 11 turnovers.
The 7-0 Stanford Cardinal stay in the Bay Area the next couple days and host Southern Utah on Monday before the team disperses for a quick Christmas break. Josh Childress could be cleared to play when he returns from that break on the 26th, and with the surge his teammates are experiencing right now, the prospects are frightening for this team. And the rest of the country is fast taking notice.
"This [win] makes teams know that we are a really fundamental team," Davis expounds. "They know that there isn't one place where they can attack us."
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!