Tough As Nails

Most Stanford fans have come to recognize the exceptional athleticism and depth that set this team apart from previous Cardinal squads, but the immeasurable that still leaves some fans skeptical is toughness. Strong first half performances have faded into second half collapses in several games, which calls the "killer instinct" into question. Well, tonight Stanford demonstrated unquestioned toughness and intensity in a Maples brawl with USC, winning 77-67.

I know that Kansas was a nationally recognized game where the Childress-less Cardinal put their pin in the middle of the college basketball map by upsetting the #1 team in the country.  Admittedly, the road win at McKale was an important confirmation game to prove that Stanford could play with a quick and athletic lineup in a hostile arena.  The Gonzaga game was pretty huge, besting a foe with depth, experience and a dominating frontcourt of national acclaim.

But this evening's all-out war with the USC Trojans was the game of the year for your Stanford Cardinal.

The dominant West Coast rivalry for the last five years has been Stanford-Arizona, no doubt.  But no team has instilled sphincter-releasing fear in white-knuckled Stanford fans like USC.  In various forms, the Trojans have harassed and pressed some very good Cardinal squads the last few years into nightmarish upsets.  Some of those losses have fit under the "humiliation" category.  The Card had dropped at least one game to these Compton Kids in three of the last five years, and most recently had lost four of the last six meetings.  Maples has been no safe haven against the Trojans, with the home Cardinal just 3-2 over the last five years.

The problems in these losses have been the quickness of USC's guards and the variety of trapping pressure packages that have been mixed and matched like some metaphorical Molotov cocktail.  This year's edition of the terrible Trojans look like perhaps an even greater threat.  The Craven twins have been a two-fold thorn in the collective side of the Cardinal the past two years, with USC outscoring Stanford by an average score of 81-74 in the six head-to-head matchups.  Now consider that their athletic threat and horror has been squared, with another pair of other-worldly terrible twins on board in the backcourt.  The Stewart twins were even more highly rated athletes out of high school than the Cravens; this year and the next will be Hell on Hardwood against this fearful foursome.

If there was one glimmer of hope (beyond the fact that Stanford was 15-0 and the toast of the college hoops nation, against a horribly coached and imploding 8-8 USC team), it was the preannounced benching of Errick Craven.  The better half of the junior twin tandem had an ill-time acid flashback Thursday night - of a World Cup game he had attended as a child.  Unable to recognized his altered state, he found himself acting out a game-clinching penalty kick with the head of Richard Midgley (tough irony break for the Brit).  An unsympathetic Hank "In the Tank" Bibby held the offender on the bench for the first half of tonight's game, and did not insert the junior guard until the 12-minute media timeout of the second half.  Errick Craven would explode for eight points in eight minutes, which might lead you to believe the Card dodged a bullet by missing him for three-quarters of the contest.  Interestingly, Stanford outscored the visitors 31-22 after he finally entered the game...

But head-scratching personnel decisions by Bibby aside, any five players SC put on the floor at any time in this game gave Stanford something they had not seen in any game this year, nor are the Cardinal likely to experience this much "tough", "nasty" and "physical" from any remaining conference opponent.  UCLA wants to be tough, but they're softer than Josiah Johnson's protruding posterior.  Amit Tamir has as much nasty to him as Mister Rogers.  Arizona's "run at all costs" style of play looks to jack up the first open shot across halfcourt they can see, eschewing any manner of physical play in the halfcourt setting.  The dandy-boy Duckies are of the same ilk.

But USC plays pissed off, and they would have been better dressed out in chain mail tonight, rather than nylon tank-top jerseys.  The tone brought to tonight's game was set in the opening minutes when early missed shots by Stanford resulted in WWF-style brawls under the basket for rebounds.  An incensed Henry Bibby marched onto the floor at the officials, enraged, and picked himself up a technical foul.

The Sixth Man section was coming into this game with their hardhats and pitchforks, ready to duel with a Trojan program that engenders more vituperation and venom than probably any other opponent these days on Stanford's docket, but the cage match brawling and apoplectic Bibby threw veritable gasoline on their fire.  They took that emotion and exploded it into the loudest and most heartfelt performance by the student section in the last several years.  That fueled the rest of the arena, and it is clear that the intensity fueled the emotion of the Stanford team.  Rob Little was constantly motioning to his fellow students between plays to get louder, and seniors Justin Davis and Matt Lottich had even bigger scowls and redder faces than usual.  The mild-mannered Nick Robinson uncharacteristically chest-bumped teammates and burned his lungs with post-play screams.

It didn't hurt that the manhood of these #2-ranked Cards was being challenged each trip up and down the floor by the bruising and battering Trojans.

"It was a very physical game," Matt Haryasz understated afterward.  "Each time down the court, guys were chucking you and throwing elbows.  Down in the post, there were a lot of cheap shots.  Today, I thought [the officials] let a lot go."

As Mike Montgomery sat down in his chair to begin the post-game press conference, he looked as physically drained as you will ever see the Stanford head coach, who blankly stared down at the table.  "I feel like I've been in a war.  That happens when you play USC," he offered.  "They're always aggressive - great hands, quick hands.  SC is for real.  They can defend, and their style is a problem for us."

The problem indeed was manifest in 19 turnovers during the game for Stanford.  But you should avoid stereotyping the turnovers to be like those of recent tussles with the Trojans.  In the past, it has been trapping pressure (be it full court or three-quarters) that yielded turnovers and too-easy baskets for USC.  In this game, though, there were just a rare few possessions where the Trojans seriously attempted traps.  Instead they ran a set of zone defenses that moved their mobile and active athletes around the perimeter and lunged at Stanford ballhandlers.

The turnovers came early and often, but they were different.  The ballyhooed heros of this Stanford squad played with what appeared to be a nervous energy out on the floor in the first half.  Call it overabundant adrenaline, if you will.  But Stanford was making far too many unforced turnovers in situations where they were not trapped.  Several players were fumbling the ball when they wanted to pass, and the post players were missing badly inside from point blank.

"Maybe in some ways, SC gets us to play faster than we want on offense," Montgomery admits.

Justin Davis in particular was a regrettable polar opposite of his smooth and efficient self we enjoyed Thursday night.  He missed all four of his attempts in the first half - all deep in the paint - plus both of his free throw attempts.  Montgomery was forced to pull his over-juiced forward and instead give Matt Haryasz big minutes.  The lanky sophomore responded on both ends of the floor, swatting three balls in an inspiring defensive effort and stroking clutch 14-footers on offense.  But Haryasz also turned the ball over three times, freezing in traffic with the ball held perilously low below his waist in passing situations.

Stanford's perimeter game looked like a Ray Charles sharpshooting contest, clanking on each and every of the six three-point attempts.  Matt Lottich made just one of his seven attempts in the half, and that was a seriously troubling result.  He has saved Stanford's bacon in every big game this year, while other players have been up and down.  Watching Justin Davis give an award-winning impersonation of his redshirt sophomore year while Lottich languished and all-world Josh Childress underwhelmed on offense... there was real reason for concern at the half.

USC led 34-28, and the explosive Trojans had not even begun to put their offense together.  Undoubtedly Desmon Farmer could "wake up" and go for 20 points in the second half, not to mention the sleeping giant of Rory O'Neil, who quickly sat on the bench in the first half with two fouls in the first two and a half minutes.

I don't care how cocky you are about this Stanford team.  The first half was bad, and the results were not flukish.  The Card were not "cold" in their shooting, with shots ready to start dropping any minute.  They shot 36% in the half because they were completely shaken on offense and tripped all over themselves in a scene reminiscent of some late October scrimmage.

But this team is as good as it is, not because of their newfound depth and athleticism, but instead because of their mental toughness and resilience.  The only other game this year they had trailed at halftime was the Rice road affair in Houston two months ago.  But down six in a Pac-10 contest against the most threatening opponent this squad has known in their careers, plus impotent evenings from the two senior offensive producers - this was a real test.  The Card responded with flying colors.

"I thought being down at the half didn't hurt us," Montgomery opines. "Are you going to keep your poise - how are you going to react to being behind?  Are you going to right yourself and make some plays?  I think we did that."

The two heroes in the great turnaround second half, where Stanford outscored their foes 49-33, were Nick Robinson and Chris Hernandez.  Both made the plays that solved the riddle of SC's tough zone defense.  Robinson several times curled around a high screen from the wing to the top of the key for 17-foot jumpers, and he also led the breaks in transition that gave Stanford badly needed easy buckets.  Twice he managed to get fouled and go to the line for three-point plays, to boot.

The 6'7" multi-position redshirt junior scored all 13 of his points in the second half, on 6-of-6 shooting, and the performance was a great relief to Mike Montgomery.  The head man had moved Robinson to a bench role Thursday to make way for Josh Childress at the starting small forward position, and Robinson delivered a very lackluster performance.

"Nick has played great for us," compliments Montgomery.  "The thing that concerned me the other night was that bringing Nick off the bench changes his minutes.  I worry if it will affect Nick in an adverse way."

But the wise and seasoned coach is finding new ways to get Robinson minutes even as Childress expands his role on the team.  Tonight, the forward played reserve minutes behind Matt Lottich at the shooting guard position, and that helped spark transition scores.

"When I'm playing at the 'two' we have a lot of size," the 6'7" wing opines.  "Josh is at the 'three' and can rebound, which allows me to get out on the break, and vice versa."

Hernandez stepped up his game and was at least as crucial in busting that nasty zone. With entry passes difficult into the low post, and with cold perimeter shooting from the wing, the redshirt sophomore took it open himself to drive through the heart of the zone for scores at the basket as well as the free throw line.  Misinformed Stanford fans have charged that Hernandez is a limited offensive weapon, unable to provide a credible threat heading toward the basket.  He blew by Mustafa Shakur in man-to-man defensive challenges in Tucson, and tonight he showed that he could slice through the best zone Stanford will see all year.

"Yeah, but there has to be somebody more than Chris," points out an always critical Montgomery of the drives.  "Too many guys were standing around and watching what Chris would do.  In the second half we did a better job.  We dropped it into the post a time or two, and Nick got a little penetration."

Hernandez also hit all three of his three-point attempts in the second half (none attempted in the first stanza).  He hit 7-of-8 free throws, ripped down five boards and dished seven assists.  It was the most complete and compelling game we have probably seen in his young Cardinal career.  And it came against the team that should have given him his greatest nightmares.

"They are as quick as we've seen - with their hands," Hernandez says of the USC players.  "They're just very quick and get the ball."

Overall, Stanford shot a scorching 72% in the second half and pounded the Trojans on the boards, 16-7.  The Card won the rebounding battle for the game, 38-26.

In total, the Cardinal did much more than just survive the many pitfalls of USC's defense - they destroyed that defense in the second half.  It was the greatest demonstration of toughness and focus we have yet seen this year from Stanford, and it came in a game that felt so much like an NCAA Tournament test.  The officials let a lot slide in this game, but at the same time they made maddeningly uneven calls from poor positioning on the floor.  The players could have been rattled, and indeed we did see a couple instances where individual Cards confronted the officials.  The Stanford players more importantly adjusted to the style of the game and found new ways in the second half to crack a very difficult defensive nut.

Chris Hernandez scored 18 points to lead all Stanford scorers.  Rob Little added a quiet but efficient 10 points to go with his seven boards.  Josh Childress added "just" 11 points with his own seven boards, though his minutes were limited by foul trouble he brought upon himself with foolish over-the-back calls.  When he was in the game, though, the athletic junior played excellent defense on the wing against Desmon Farmer.

This 16-0 start for Stanford is the third best in school history.  The Cardinal opened the famed Final Four season of 1997-98 with an 18-0 run; three years ago they set a new record with a 20-0 start in the 2000-01 Elite Eight season.

Complete game box score

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