Card Climb Back, Survive Upset Saturday

Spreading faster than the avian flu, there was a disease striking Top 25 programs with alarming results on Saturday. Top ranked teams were dropping like flies, and Stanford looked like their unbeaten status was in grave danger as they trailed at Oregon by 19 in the second half. Then a funny thing happened: two unlikely Cardinal players stepped up and pulled an anemic offense forward to one of the great comeback wins in Stanford Hoops history.

A look at Saturday's top 25 scoreboard is enough to make you dizzy. #4 Louisville picked up just their second loss of the year, at home against Marquette. #5 Kentucky dropped to Vanderbilt, an unheard of result in SEC basketball. #7 Cincinnati lost to UNC-Charlotte. #12 Kansas bowed out at Iowa State; #15 North Carolina was bombed by Clemson. And it goes on and on.

While Matt Lottich's opening jumper in the first possession of the ballgame temporarily lifted your spirits (the slumping senior shooter did not make his first jumper until late in the second half Thursday), spirits went south in a hurry. In the second minute of the game, Lottich threw an inbound pass play over the defense toward the backcourt, which Oregon's All-American candidate Luke Jackson snagged and took the distance for a lay-in. Rob Little picked up the ball and attempted to inbound the ball under that same basket, but he somehow tossed it meekly right to Jackson a few feet away, who was quickly fouled by Little as he tried to score. Jackson made just one of two free throws, but those quick scores accelerated the pace of the game to a style that the Ducks absolutely relish at home, and the 9,000+ strong at McArthur Court were already ignited, loud and on their feet.

Mike Montgomery was furious with Little and substituted him immediately out of the game, and Joe Kirchofer made good in his first possession with a little lay-in off the glass in the low post on the other end. Stanford trailed just 5-4, but the Oregon run was just getting under way. It came hard and fast as the fast-paced Ducks seized Cardinal misses and pushed the ball up the floor for quick scores. Oregon was the most dangerous three-point shooting team in the conference coming into the game, and they lived up to that billing with pull-up bombs in transition. Andre Joseph hit a pair of treys to lift Oregon to a 13-9 advantage.

On the offensive end, the one sniff of good news was that Lottich was producing. Thursday's game in Corvallis was an absolute nightmare for the senior shooting guard, but he scored seven of Stanford's first nine points this afternoon. He drove baseline and used a fake to draw a foul and two points at the stripe, followed the next possession by a three-pointer off a high screen. The bad news was that Lottich would not score in the final 15:50 of the half, and his seven points would be the high for a very offensively challenged Stanford squad.

After hitting three of their first five shots, the #2 ranked Cardinal would make just five of their final 24 in the half. They turned the ball over six times in the half, did not rebound all that well, and many jumpers rattled in and out. On the other end of the floor, Oregon was out and running with each failed Stanford possession. Joseph hit their first pair of bombs, but James Davis took over and really pulled the game away. He nailed two three-pointers in the span of 30 seconds that stretched the lead to 13 points, at 24-11. The second of those treys was a quick pull-up on the break that was completely indefensible, and once again it ratched up the noise level even higher at Mac Court.

The Stanford offensive machine was grinding gears and in need of a major tune-up. The Cardinal were without the services of their primary frontcourt force in Justin Davis, who injured his knee in the second half of the Oregon State game. They essentially were also without center Rob Little, who subbed back into the game but picked up his second and third fouls, sending him to the bench for the remainder of the half. When he came back on the floor to start the second half, he was tagged with his fourth personal foul, and never left the bench again.

In the backcourt, Lottich went cold and point guard Chris Hernandez mustered nary a point in the half. Montgomery shook things up by subbing Jason Haas in for him at the 8:30 mark, but the Ducks kept on rolling. They pushed the lead to 14 points when Joseph got out and ran in transition after a missed Josh Childress three-pointer, and the Oregon guard blew by Matt Lottich for a lay-up and foul. The old-fashioned three point play put the Ducks ahead 32-18, which grew to 34-18 off a Mitch Platt turnaround short jumper.

Stanford couldn't hit anything from outside, so they tried to work the ball into the paint to Matt Haryasz and Joe Kirchofer. There was sporadic success, but Haryasz was feeling a little nerves as he pushed two jumpers in a row long off the back iron. But after that Platt two-pointer, the Card went right back to Haryasz and he mechanically answered with a short turnaround of his own to temporarily stop the bleeding. The defense still could not stop James Davis, though, as he found himself with a wide-open jumper inside the free throw line to push the margin again to 16 points. The Card went again to the paint, this time with Kirchofer employing his patented hook shoot from six feet.

Davis finally missed a three-pointer on the next possession, and Stanford had a glimmer of hope to bring the game to single digits by the half, but Hernandez had himself a wide-open trey that he too missed. Haryasz went up for a spectacular one-handed rebound and then stepped out on the baseline for a turnaround 10-foot jumper that gently stroked the string. It was a 12-point game, and Haryasz had six points in a stretch of four and a half minutes. But James Davis again shot a dagger through Stanford's heart with a three-pointer off a screen that opened the lead back to 15.

Shooting 27% in the first half and getting bombed by the Davis-Joseph Oregon tandem, this finally looked like the end of the undefeated run for Stanford. They trailed 39-24 at the half, easily their largest deficit of the year and just third halftime gap of the season. Haryasz picked up the pace late in the half, but Stanford's scoring from the other four spots on the floor was extinct. Lottich shot just three times the last 16 minutes of the game, and all three were long-range misses. Hernandez was scoreless. Nick Robinson had nary a hint of offense, and just two points on free throws. The one guy you would hope could take over a game in an offensive funk like this was Josh Childress, but he was unable to drive into Oregon's disciplined man defense to create anything. He missed all four of his attempts in the first half, and just had two points on free throws.

The extra pit in your stomach was the fact that Luke Jackson had not yet really done any damage. After his quick three points in the opening two minutes, he never scored in the first half. He only shot the ball three times after that, but as soon as he would catch fire in the second half, the Card would be in even bigger trouble.

The Stanford coaching staff had no brilliant answers at halftime for the slumping squad. They could not very well shake up the defense with zone looks when the offense couldn't make a basket to save their lives. The personnel rotations were limited with Davis out of action and Little in huge foul trouble.

"Everybody in general was pissed at how we were playing," Hernandez describes of the locker room atmosphere. "We knew we were getting our asses kicked. We had nothing to lose. Let's go out there and play."

Hernandez in particular decided that he had to grab the reins on offense and start scoring if there was going to be any chance of a comeback, or even a salvation of self-respect.

"My role on this team is not to go out and put up big scoring numbers," the redshirt sophomore explains. "But in the first half, the scoring we were getting just wasn't getting it done. In the second half, I realized I had to get it going."

He did just that, with Stanford running its motion offense on their first possession. A nice Rob Little clear-out gave Hernandez some space and he hit a midrange jumper to pull the Card within 13. But then the offense went cold again and did not score for another three minutes. Little quickly picked up his fourth foul and sat the last 18+ minutes of the game. Hernandez, Lottich and Childress all missed three-point attempts while Oregon went on a 6-0 run. James Davis hit a trey in that stretch on a ridiculously wide-open shot in the corner. There was not a Stanford defender within 10 feet of him. Davis then hit a 16-footer in transition to give the Ducks their biggest lead of the game at 19 points: 45-26.

Montgomery called a timeout to quell the unrelenting crowd and to bandage the bleeding. Out of the break, Stanford went to Haryasz in the low block, and his turnaround jumper put Stanford back on the board. They made a steal on the other end and found Nick Robinson on the break, as he was fouled and added two points from the free throw line. Next possession Childress drove into traffic and drew the defense, then dishing to Haryasz for a lay-in. Stanford's own 6-0 run quickly brought the margin back to 13 points, with more than 15 minutes left in the game.

The made baskets also gave Stanford a chance to put their zone defense on the floor, which appeared to slow down Oregon's offensive threat in the half court. But then Luke Jackson caught fire and hit an open three-pointer that was the first three of his 22 second half points. Haryasz answered immediately with a four-foot turnaround jumper, and the Ducks would miss a pair of long-range attempts against the zone. Haryasz hustled for a loose long rebound on the second miss, which he tossed ahead to a streaking Lottich for an uncontested lay-in. The score was now 48-36, and Stanford had the game close to single digits once again.

But the Card could not get enough stops on defense to ignite a true run. The Ducks ended up badly outscored in the second half, but they actually shot pretty well. Luke Jackson was firing bombs from outside, while Mitch Platt was having a career day inside converting turnaround shots on the low block with great efficiency. Platt put the game back at 14 points, 50-36, answered on the other end by a driving Hernandez and his two free throw conversions. Then Jackson launched a 25-foot bomb over the zone, that splintered Stanford's hopes. He was catching fire, and the Card could not get to single digits.

With a 15-point deficit, Hernandez again attacked Oregon's defense, which interestingly was also dabbling in a zone. The Stanford point guard got to the basket for a tough lay-up while getting hacked by Jackson, and the three-point play put the game back at 12. Platt answered with a deuce down low on the other end, but then Hernandez found his stroke with a three-pointer at the top of the key to close the margin to 11, at 55-44. There was plenty of time left, and Stanford's offense was starting to click.

"I was getting penetration, and some were scores but we also got some good kicks," Hernandez explains. "As people started making plays, then we started making [defensive] stops. In the first half, it seemed like we didn't make any stops at all. I don't even think it was our zone that did it in the second half, because Jackson killed us twice with three's. They kept hitting. We got back into our man-to-man."

"We had struggled on the boards in the first half," adds Childress. "But we started rebounding better in the second half, and that got us more possessions. We also got out on the break, which gave us some easier offense."

The 11-point lead temporarily faded with a Jackson free throw and then a 23-foot three-pointer. Stanford trailed 59-44, but Hernandez did not let up on offense. He drove the lane again and drew a foul, this time hitting one of two attempts. The next possession he found himself open at the top of the key as Oregon failed on a defensive switch, and that bomb put the game back at 11 points.

Jackson would hit yet another trey to push the margin again to 14 points, feeling it on his every stroke. Joe Kirchofer made an offensive rebound tip-in to answer, but then the big blow was struck by Josh Childress, who found himself open on the wing with some nice ball movement by Stanford. He stroked his first field goal of the game inside eight minutes to go, and the three-pointer sliced the lead to nine. Haryasz stroked a sweet 10-foot jumper to cut the margin to seven, and then Oregon turned the ball over to give Stanford more chances. Matt Lottich broke his slump and hit a tough turnaround three-pointer to bring the Card within four, 64-60.

Jackson took the ball to the hole and drew an absolutely horrible call as he was pushing off with his forearm, but Childress drew the whistle. The three-point play ended Stanford's 10-0 run, but the Card kept on coming. They engineered a new seven-point run. Childress hit two free throws in the one-and-one bonus, followed by a nifty move by Haryasz to score in the low post. Hernandez got out on the break and scored by himself, again drawing a foul and setting himself for a three-point play.

I have to admit that when I turned by head to look at the scoreboard with the fiery Stanford sophomore at the line, I was shocked that the Card trailed by a single point. The 93% free throw shooter was about to tie the game with four and a half minutes left in the game, and the comeback had come in the blink of an eye.

His stroke was true, and the game stood tied at 67.

Game on.

The Ducks got back on their webbed toes as Jackson drove the lane, and an off-balance Lottich hacked at him. The pair of free throws quickly returned the lead to Oregon, but then Josh Childress answered with a three-point bomb on a skip pass over the Duck defense. Stanford led 70-69 and had an advantage for the first time since their 2-0 start in the opening minute. The one-point lead switched back and forth the next few possessions, giving Oregon a lead again at 73-72. Stanford's ensuing possession was unable to find any good looks, and with the ball on Matt Lottich's hands as the shot clock ticked down, the senior gunner went up to launch a three-point shot before the buzzer. Jackson had him well defended and put a hand right over his face. Lottich adjusted and pulled the ball back even higher over his head and gave it a heave. The buzzer sounded with the ball in the air, and somehow the shot banked in off the backboard.

In such an incredible comeback as this game, you need a couple jolts of good luck, and that was the key lucky bounce for the Cardinal. Now leading 75-73, Stanford never again trailed in the game. Ian Crosswhite would make a lay-in off a sweet dish by Jackson to tie the game at 75 with just 90 seconds left in regulation, but Hernandez answered with a drive to the basket that drew two more free throws. Stanford led 77-75 and held on the remainder. The Ducks' luck had surely run out on their ridiculously long three-pointers when Jackson chucked up a 30-point attempt that came off the iron, and Lottich secured the rebound.

With less than a minute to go, Stanford needed one more score to put this game away. Of all people, Matt Haryasz held the ball at the top of the key and put it on the floor. He took a dribble-drive to the basket on the right side and drew a double team. The agile and skilled big man gave a little fake and then threw an exquisite wrap-around bounce pass under the basket to a wide-open Nick Robinson. That gave an easy lay-in, and Stanford had their biggest lead of the game at 79-75. A four-point lead with 21.8 seconds to go was not a lock, but it was managable. The Card held on with late free throws for the 83-80 win.

"We're all just excited," a glowing Hernandez said after the game. "We proved something to ourselves, and we're all just so happy."

The Stanford point guard scored all 22 of his points in the second half, while also recording three steals and four assists versus zero turnovers. He did it from outside, and he also pushed the ball hard to the rack. Hernandez earned his way to the free throw line for a game-high 12 attempts, and he nailed 10 of them. But what will go unnoticed is the job he did on James Davis in the second half. Davis was the leading offensive bugaboo in the first half, but was a shadow of himself in the second stanza.

"I just decided I was going to deny him the ball," Hernandez comments. "He was the only thing I was going to do in the second half."

More than an inspiring second half comeback, and more than a continuation of the undefeated record, this game was a statement for the offensive abilities of Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz. The fomer has been unfairly labelled as a pass-only distribution point guard who lacks offensive punch. While that is not his first priority, he has shown all year that he can hit the big three-pointer. More importantly, he did something that critics never imagined he could do: take over a game offensively when all other options were failing.

Haryasz was in the most uncomfortable of positions, making his first start on the road at arguably the most intimidating arena in the Pac-10. He had the displeasure of playing a career-high 33 minutes in this environment while he had no threatening frontcourt mate, and against a very solid defenisve effort. Haryasz did much more than hit soft jumpers and score with savvy moves down low - he showed that he could shake off early problems individually and as a team to emerge a confident scorer. Haryasz made his best shots when the team was at their nadir, and he never showed even a hint of wavering confidence. I saw a little youth in his reaction to some whistles from the officiating crew, but nothing about the offense or defense appeared to phase him. Matt Haryasz came of age in this game, and while Stanford cannot get Justin Davis back soon enough, they discovered a future star today, battle-tested and ready for war. Scoring a career-high 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting, plus seven rebounds, is pretty nice as well.

Complete game box score

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