There were reasons for apprehension coming into tonight's Pac-10 opener against Washington State. The Cougars were a team with perhaps the stingiest defense in the conference, and were visiting a team who publicly has admitted to offensive execution woes. Mike Montgomery was not even in the building, quietly serving his one-game suspension from an incident last year against Arizona State. And Josh Childress was coming back from a stress reaction of his fourth metatarsal in his foot, for his first regular season game of his junior year. The last time a Stanford player tried to make a mid-season return from a foot injury, Chris Hernandez again broke a metatarsal in his foot and ended his season.
In contrast to the chilly and reserved expectations for this first Stanford game of 2004, the results were a rousing success. There was nary a beat skipped with Tony Fuller at the helm on the bench, in the managment of the team as well as the substitution decisions. Washington State made scoring runs in both halves, that chopped Stanford leads into sawdust, but the Cardinal answered swiftly and effortlessly each time. Best of all, Josh Childress dazzled like nobody expected, and he did so without any apparent aggravation to his foot.
"I feel fine," the 6'8" superstar forward reveals. "My arch has been sore, but that's normal. The arch is sore just because of all the activity I've had the last few days, but the metatarsal is fine."
If Childress truly does stay healthy, his return could mean the world to this team. It's not as if Stanford has exactly suffered in their 9-0 start before the season debut of the "Electric Q-Tip" - with their bubbly national acclaim and #5 ranking. But what the junior showed today in his first game of the year, after six weeks of inactivity, was simply incredible.
Childress entered the game for his first regular season action of the year at the 11:14 mark, and the entire Maples crowd rose to their feet in a spontaneous and heartfelt recognition of their previously fallen hero. It was clear that the Stanford junior did not need to do anything in this game to earn any praise; the simple fact that he was back was the great celebration.
If you expected rust for Childress, then you were unsurprised by his first offensive opportunity of the game. 39 seconds after checking in at the scorer's table, the wing spotted up in the corner for a three-point attempt that came up well short. But there were no moans of disappointment from the home crowd; Childress was expected to be out of synch in all facets of his game.
Just don't get hurt.
That was the thought racing through every fan's mind when on the other end of the floor Childress faced his first individual defensive challenge. After six weeks of attention and worry with a bone in his left left, you could only expect him to play somewhat cautiously on both ends of the floor. Instead, the aggressive baller pushed out his chest and spread his wide wingspan in tight defense that denied any entry to the post by Washington State's Jeff Varem. The Cougar looked to spin and put up a jumper around the Stanford defender, but Childress went right at him and blocked the shot.
It was the most unexpected moment of 2004 for Stanford Basketball, and it portended the breakout that Childress would enjoy in his scant few minutes of play.
Back at the other basket, Joe Kirchofer tried to score but his short shot came hard off the iron and Childress exploded up for the offensive rebound. In a pogo stick motion that reflects the lightness and quickness of his vertical abilities, the fab forward went right back up and layed the ball in for a quick score.
"I was actually very nervous," Childress explains of his first moments back in action. "Just the fact that I haven't played for six or seven weeks. But I calmed down early with an easy layup."
Though he would play only four minutes in the first half, the rousing return would have an even more exciting offensive moment a couple series later. Childress took the ball from the top of the key and curled around the defense to his left and went baseline, driving toward the basket. He went up and hit a short jumper while drawing a foul, which would give him an old fashioned three-point play.
In the second half Childress was again sent to the scorer's table after the second media timeout, and he entered the game at the 9:30 mark for another quick appearance. Once again, he looked to spark his game with a three-point attempt on his first touch in the first possession, but this one from the corner went down. Less than a minute later, Childress grabbed a 15-foot offensive rebound off a Chris Hernandez miss, and what he did next was nothing short of a revelation. The athletic forward looked at the basket and gave a couple fancy dribbles to put the Cougar defense off-balance, and then Childress drove straight at the hoop with a quick slash and went up for a leaning jumper that scored.
It was one of the most outstanding offensive plays Maples Pavilion has seen this year, or in recent years, but for it to come from a player out of commission and uncertain in the support his foot could safely give him in this debut, the play was the stuff that superlatives fail to describe.
"We know he's a great player," remarks today's head coach, Tony Fuller. "But to score 10 points in seven minutes - wow. You could tell by the way he moved he wasn't 100%. What a talent."
Childress totaled 10 points in just seven minutes of play, plus the two offensive rebounds and one blocked shot. One can only imagine what the Stanford superstar has in his toolbelt for longer stretches of game action, but the plan today of limited minutes was very deliberate. The decision before the game was to give Childress between six and 10 minutes in the game. How much he plays in the next few games, where the junior is expected to steadily increase his role, is up to him.
"The conditioning will take two weeks," the forward in focus forecasts. "The timing will come quicker. Hopefully I can come back and be myself soon because we have some tough games coming up pretty soon. Ultimately it will come down to how I feel and what I tell the doctors."
10 other Stanford players did combine for the other 193 minutes of play in this game, and though Childress dominated the collective psyche of the Stanford community, there were some other notables.
For example, Dick Bennett employed a zone defense early and often against the Stanford offense, which would have seemed a savvy move. The former Wisconsin coach built his reputation on stifling defense, and a smart zone would be a good move to dare the Cardinal arsenal that has been bereft of long-range production outside Matt Lottich.
Stanford answered the early zone with a lot of quick passing that found open shooters and lanes. Justin Davis scored quickly on a slick feed from fellow post Rob Little, with Davis catching and turning for a five-foot jumper. Little next found an opening down low to score a layup for a 4-0 lead. The ball rotation on offense continued to move around the outside of the arc and a couple minutes later found an open Chris Hernandez, who canned an open three-pointer. The starting point guard would add another trey a couple minutes later. Hernandez helped on the passing end as well, tossing an alley-oop to Davis for an athletic but easy lay-in. Add a lay-up by Rob Little, a slashing trasition score by Nick Robinson and a steal-incited transition pull-up three-pointer by Matt Lottich - suddenly Stanford was out to a quick 19-10 lead.
The Childress substitution and surge pushed the lead to 12, at 28-16, but the crafty Cougars would answer and twice cut the margin to seven points. Stanford maintained its composure though and added a 6-0 run to close out the half on the back of a flurry of activity by Matt Haryasz. The sophomore PF/C pulled down four rebounds in the final four minutes of the half, blocked a shot, turned the ball over once, attempted two shots and made one.
With a lot happening in those first 20 minutes, Stanford held a nice 37-23 lead and found themselves shooting 60% from the field (50% from behind the arc).
The #5 Cardinal handled the first seven minutes of the second half, but then slacked on defense and slumped on offense for a three-minute stretch that saw the visiting Cougars surge with a 10-0 run that closed the game to 10 points, at 51-41. Then Childress came back into the game and teamed up with Chris Hernandez to reignite the good guys on a 9-0 run. Stanford cruised uneventfully for the remainder and closed the final tally with a 73-51 victory.
"I thought we played hard for the most part," Fuller opines. "We knew we had to be aggressive defensively... but we did it without fouling, which was good. Any win is good, especially in the league."
Justin Davis led four Stanford scorers in double digits, with his 13 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field and 5-of-8 at the line. Rob Little added 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting, plus seven rebounds. Haryasz matched that game-high of seven boards, coming off the bench early in both halves and logging 19 minutes.
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