If you didn't gouge your eyes with a hot poker in the first half of tonight's Stanford-Cal game, then you had a chance to enjoy a pretty entertaining second half. But the first half was a grind with turnovers and too many missed field goal opportunities. Both teams indeed played tight man-to-man defense, with a hand in the face of just about every shooter, but three total points in the first four minutes of the ballgame was a suspicious start. Stanford did not score their first field goal until the fifth minute of the game, and that only came on a transition break when Nick Robinson took the ball coast to coast and drove for a lay-up.
With interior defense from both teams making shots too difficult inside 12 feet, the Bay Area rivals moved the offense outside early. Cal scored back-to-back baskets from 18 feet by Marquise Kately and Amit Tamir, while Stanford added their own long jumpers from Robinson and Chris Hernandez. The offenses appeared to warm up, but the scoring stopped for almost three minutes. Fab frosh Leon Powe got to the free throw line for a pair of points to break the scoring drought. Senior guard A.J. Diggs made a tough shot high off the glass a couple minutes later for another bucket, giving Cal a 10-7 lead.
Stanford would go six minutes without any scoring, and part of the problem was the lack of offensive rebounds to give them second chances. The Cardinal did not pull down a rebound at their basket until 1:48 left in the half, and then added one last offensive board in the final second of the period. Stanford would add just one more offensive board in the second half. For a team that came in averaging 13.4 offensive rebounds per game, it was a glaring failure to behold.
"I thought Cal did a good job blocking out," notes Mike Montgomery. "They played behind us."
But more than just rebounding fundamentals, there were problems with Stanford's offensive looks that hurt their chances to pull down any boards for second chance looks.
"We were rushing our shots - taking things we don't normally take," offers Matt Lottich. "So our big guys couldn't get in position for the offensive boards."
Josh Childress was big on the defensive boards this night, but never came down with the ball on the offensive end. That has to be disappointing, but he points out that he had another focus when teammates were shooting. "I was trying to protect Marquise Kately from getting out on the break, which is something we know he does well," the junior forward points out.
Stanford meanwhile could not buy a bucket. They were tentative pushing the ball down the floor on the numerous defensive rebounds that had (Cal had their own offensive problems), until Dan Grunfeld gave an unlikely spark. Slashing through the defense in transition after a Rob Little block, the sophomore put up a short leaning jumper that rolled past the front rim to give Stanford just their fourth basket of the game... with 8:12 left in the half. Grunfeld also drew a charge the next possession on the other end. It was a nice pair of plays for the 6'5" wing, who has not enjoyed a lot of success of late.
That sophomore spark did not translate into new success for Stanford, though, as they continued to rush their offense. The very next possession, Chris Hernandez lost the ball and turned it over. Matt Haryasz two possessions later threw the ball out of bounds. The only way they could move their column on the scoreboard was a pair of free throws by Childress as he was fouled 30 feet from the basket and went to the line in the bonus.
The good news for the partisan Maples crowd, though, was that Stanford had their defense on track. As the half wore on, the Cardinal coaches switched defenses between man and zone. In particular, Stanford would make a switch to zone after timeouts, when it was clear that Ben Braun was calling a play to try and gain advantages against single matchups. As a result, Cal did not score during a five-plus minute slump.
With five minutes to go in the half, Stanford led by an 11-10 score that surely shook heads up and down the West Coast. But in the final five, the #3-ranked Cardinal found another gear and started to run.
"I felt like a lot of the game, we weren't the aggressor," Childress explains. "And that caused us problems."
The preseason All-American forward took matters into his own hands when a Justin Davis steal turned into a chance for Childress and the Card to get out on the break. The lanky junior ran down the left side of the floor and at 15 feet from the baseline he took the ball and made a cut toward the center of the floor. Both Tamir and Powe were directly between him and the basket, but big Rob Little masterfully cleared both out with his arms raised and his butt moving them a good five feet away from his slashing teammate. Childress had a clear lane to the basket and threw down a dunk that brought the home crowd to its feet.
The 13-10 lead was the biggest of the game for Stanford, but Amit Tamir found an open three-pointer right away against the Card's zone defense to tie things back up. That trey ended a 6-0 run for Stanford, but they went back to work and delivered a 7-0 to grab a 20-13 lead. The big play was a Chris Hernandez three-pointer out on the wing, when Rob Little passed out of a double-team in the low block. And just like the Childress dunk that ignited the crowd, this score came off a Justin Davis steal.
The fifth-year senior forward played very aggressive, yet very smart defense throughout this game. I thought it was one of the most remarkable performances in the entire game. He reached out to poke/slap at the ball when he guarded Cal's big men on the perimeter, and Davis also did a fantastic job of sliding over to seal of penetration. How he recorded three steals in the first half and four in the game, without committing more than one foul - it defies explanation. Fans have been extolling the improved control and precision in Davis' offense the last several weeks I thought his defense in this game was the greatest sign of maturation I have seen from the athletic 6'8" power forward.
Davis also managed to hit two free throws in that 7-0 run, which was another surprising element in his performance. The career 53% shooter from the foul line stroked 7-of-8 from the charity stripe this night. In a game that saw several five-point margins and once at four in the final minutes, those free throws were a huge help.
Cal got back on the board when Leon Powe drove across the lane and put an elbow around Rob Little's waist to get a leaning look at the basket, drawing a dubious foul and putting the ball off the glass. Powe scored Cal's other two remaining points of the half an yet another questionable officiating decision, as the strong freshman lowered his shoulder on the baseline and knocked Justin Davis to the ground. With no defender, Powe had an easy basket.
Stanford countered both scores, though, to hold the seven-point lead at the half. Davis drove past Powe from the free throw line but saw his four-foot leaning jumper roll off the rim; fortunately, Matt Haryasz was right there to tip it back in. Two possessions later, Matt Lottich hit an open 15-footer in the final minute.
The second half started off on a completely different pace from the first, with the teams trading baskets left and right. Only one shot was missed (by Cal's Kately) in the first three-plus minutes, which saw 23 points scored. It took 15 minutes in the first half to get that many points on the board!
Each team had shot 1-for-6 in the first half from outside the arc, but both hit they first pair of three-point attempts in the early minutes of the second stanza. Matt Lottich ripped a pair of bombs for Stanford (one of which had a foot on the line and should have been a deuce), while Amir Tamir and Ayinde Ubaka each put one down for Cal. The offense was working inside for Stanford as well, with the wings finding Rob Little under the basket with sweet bounce passes for thundering dunks. The second of those dunks came with a three-on-two transition, led by Justin Davis. He looked for Nick Robinson on the wing, but the pass took him too far from the basket. Last year, there would have been no chance that Little would have gotten down the floor in that transition scenario, instead likely to stay back with his hands on his knees catching wind for the next defensive series. But the new-look trimmer Little trailed the play and caught an underhanded pass from Robinson that he put down with two hands, knees up at his chest.
While Mike Montgomery may not care to admit as much, there is intrinsic value in the dunk beyond its field goal perentage. In a home environment like tonight's, the crowd went wild and forced Ben Braun to take a timeout. On the road, a demonstrative dunk like that can silence a crowd.
Braun's timeout may have delayed the Stanford run, but it could not end the home team's hot play. After the timeout, Stanford went to Justin Davis outside the low block, and he spun around Powe toward the basket, elevating for a soft five-foot jumper. Chris Hernandez stole the ball on Cal's next possession and moved the offense down the floor, with Joe Kirchofer trailing the action. Tamir was hanging out under the basket and left his man completely unguarded, which is probably a prudent defensive strategy on the Stanford senior center. But Kirchofer took the ball at 21 feet, made one dribble and then pulled up for a 16-foot jumper that touched nothing but net.
The play gave Stanford a 42-28 lead of 14 points, its biggest of the game, and it reinforced that the Cardinal was well in control of the game. When Kirchofer is burying shots from beyond the free throw line, you are in a world of hurt. Stanford never really opened up the game into clinching 20-point territory, though, as the teams traded baskets in a narrow scoring range for the next 10 minutes.
Some of the highlight moments while Stanford held the lead included great transition scores. Childress, not unlike his drive in the first half, brought the ball down the left wing and slashed right around the defense to the basket. Another break saw Hernandez take the ball toward the basket, going to his left, then dishing to his right while in the air to a trailing Davis, who threw down an uncontested dunk. And once again, Ben Braun had to take a timeout to quell the noise and momentum that broke out from the slam.
The largest lead of the game came with 5:43 to go in regulation, as Hernandez took a Rob Little defensive rebound and raced down the floor. Childress was hanging out on the wing, but the redshirt sophomore point guard split three defenders for a finger-roll lay-in (and another Braun timeout). The 16-point lead at 55-39 was the biggest of the game, and interestingly it came on the heels of a handful of Richard Midgley misses. The Cal shooting guard had scored five points through the first 34-plus minutes of the game on 1-of-4 shooting. His only looks were ones he forced with drives off high screens, and his one field goal was a very tough shot off the glass while being fouled.
But coming out of that timeout, he let loose a lot of pent-up offense. Midgley would score 14 of Cal's last 19 points in the game, including a 23-foot three-pointer against Stanford's zone in the first post-timeout possession. A Hernandez turnover on the other end let A.J. Diggs get out on the break, and he found Kately for a lay-in and foul. All of a sudden, the 16-point margin was down to 10.
Stanford answered with two points on a Justin Davis put-back (the only offensive board of the half, but Midgely went back to work on offense again, this time driving to the basket against Dan Grunfeld from 25 feet out. Grunfeld kept his body in front of the Cal guard, but when Midgely went up for the shot, Grunfeld hacked at him. In a very surprising play, Midgely switched the ball mid-air from his left hand to his right and tossed up a prayer that went in off the glass. That brought the margin back to 10, but Cal grabbed a rebound off the missed free throw and converted for another two points.
With four minutes to go in the game, Stanford led by just eight points, which was their smallest lead since the first media timeout of the half. The Card failed to score on a missed Childress jumper, and Diggs got out on the break. As Stanford got back on defense, Midgely was open outside the three-point line and immediately touched the ball. He nailed the trey and cut the lead to just five points.
Now Mike Montgomery was the one to call a run-stopping timeout. The Stanford head man substituted Matt Lottich into the game for Grunfeld, swapping in a senior for a sophomore to better defend Midgely. Though Montgomery did not want to call Grunfeld out after the game, he did remark at his substitution at the 5:33 mark in the game which coincided with the onset of the run.
"I probably caused that with some substitutions I normally don't do that time of the game," the coach said of the big momentum swing in Cal's favor.
The Stanford players felt like the problem did not lie so much in the defense of Midgely, but rather in their own failures to continue the type of play that had given them a 16-point margin. Those lay-ins and dunks by Childress and Davis were no more because the Stanford offense wanted to slow things down.
"We stopped pushing the ball on the break," Childress laments. "When you let [Cal] control the tempo like that, it's hard to hold the lead."
Fortunately for a stunned Maples crowd, though, the good guys gave themselves some breathing room with free throw shooting. The scored all 11 of their final points at the line, hitting 11-of-12. For the game, Stanford shot an incredible 25-of-28 from the stripe. Amit Tamir hit a gift of a three-pointer that used the rim and backboard, and Midgely hit his third trey of his hot run, this one behind a Tamir screen. Those shots closed the lead to five points and then four, respectively, but with just 44 seconds remaining, Stanford hit too many free throws. Final score: Stanford 68, Cal 61.
Though clearly displeased with many facets of his team this night, Mike Montgomery is probably secretly pleased that Stanford endured this experience. While the players are hearing an earful of hype about this amazing program and their inspiring play, Montgomery is always worried about guys buying into the idea that they are "supposed to be good." Cal has not been particularly threatening in any way this year, and Stanford has stomped them in recent years in Maples. For the #3 team in the nation to go eerily late into the game agains a 6-7 (now 6-8) team, well, that might help him scare his troops into buying what he sells in team meetings.
"We have to guard against all the nonsense that people are saying," he proclaimed afterward. "Cal came in to play. They weren't intimidated by anything."
- Matt Lottich missed all three of his long-range attempts in the first half, but he hit both of his treys in the second half on the way to a 15-point game. Josh Childress came off the bench once again, and he produced his second double-double in his last three games. The 6'8" forward pulled down 10 boards to go with his 10 points. Justin Davis was the other Stanford player in double figures, with 13 points, including seven at the free throw line. Nick Robinson and Chris Hernandez each added nine points.
- To be fair, Grunfeld should not get tagged with much criticism for Midgely's run. The Cal player hit two three-pointers while Grunfeld was in the game, but the first came from deep and against Stanford's zone - which was a tough shot for which Grunfeld had zero responsibility. He was situated on the other side of the court in that zone; Robinson was instead the wing with the responsibility on that play. For the second trey, Midgely pulled the trigger in transition and not by beating Grunfeld or any defender guarding him. As for that crazy shot while being fouled, you have to give huge props to the British guard. He switched the ball from his left hand (where he was fouled) to his right, in the air after he was hacked and still managed to get a shot off. That was as tough a play as you'll see in Pac-10 play this year - very Sportscenter worthy.
- Can you believe Cal scored just two points off the bench?
- For all their youth and offensive inconsistency, it sure looks like Cal can play defense. They were ranked high in both scoring and field goal defense in the conference, and lived up to those stats tonight. Stanford coaches and players both handed out praise afterward. "Cal is good defensively," Montgomery states. "They have the kind of athletes with speed who can make up for mistakes, and they're stronger than you might think for freshmen." Rob Little gave out his own kudos: "This is the best defense I've seen Cal play since I've been at Stanford."
- With the loss by Wake Forest today to Duke, Stanford is now the only team in the top five in either poll to remain undefeated. It is a foregone conclusion that the Cardinal will be #2 in both polls Monday, but we could see a strange occurance in the top two. This past week, Stanford was voted #1 by 11 members of the Associated Press, while Duke received just four nods for the top spot. If you assume that the two schools will roughly envenly receive the votes "vacated" by UConn after their loss to North Carolina, then we could see Duke atop the new AP poll despite having a minority of the #1 votes... behind Stanford.
- The media room tonight was as crowded as I have ever seen at a Stanford home game, and indeed there were 79 press credentials issued for this game. That number is second all-time in Maples Pavilion history, behind the 1999 game against UConn. Of course, there were nearly 100 more credentials issued for that affair, which reflects just how extraordinary an event that battle against the #1-ranked Huskies was in this program's history.
- Following up on the theme of Justin Davis playing aggressively but controlled on defense, the fifth-year senior has committed a mere 2.8 fouls per game this season. Last year he was whistled for 3.6 fouls per game. Davis fouled out of seven games last season but has not yet fouled out of a single game this year. Kudos also to Rob Little for his improved discipline on defense, who is averaging just 2.1 fouls per game and no foul-outs this year versus 3.2 fouls per game and four disqualifications a year ago. In fact, not a single Stanford player has fouled out of a game this 2003-04 seasons.
- Mike Montgomery is now 12-3 versus Ben Braun in the eight-plus seasons they have faced off.
- This 14-0 start is nice, but is just the third best opening run of wins in the Montgomery era. Next up is 18-0 mark set by the 1997-98 Final Four squad. After that is the 20-0 run by the 2000-01 Elite Eight team. Hmm. Those are the two biggest opening winning streaks in modern history for this program, and it is probably not a coincidence that those teams pushed deeper in the postseason than any other in modern Stanford Basketball history.
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