Just when you think you are starting to figure out this Stanford Basketball team, they surprise you again.
There is no surprise that the Card handled Cal this night at "Our" Haas Pavilion. The local and national media has been hyping up this game, as they continue to hope and wait for the other shoe to drop on Stanford's storybook season, but these two programs and seasons could not be further apart. 20-0 versus 11-9. #5 RPI and #2 ranking versus #71 RPI and not so much as a sniff at any ranking. The Card are a consensus lock for a #1 seed more than a month before NCAA Selection Sunday, while Cal is teetering on the NIT bubble.
No, the surprise came in how the undefeated Cardinal rolled in the second half to victory in this game. Stanford rolled to a 34-21 advantage in the second period, but did so without hitting a single three-pointer. Chris Hernandez had been the offensive engine for the last several tight games since Justin Davis' injury, but he was a complete non-factor this night with three points (one in the second half) and five turnovers. Matt Lottich has been the other player in the backcourt this year to come out firing for big games, but he managed just four second half points.
This team ran away with the second half because they played a tremendously balanced game. Six different players scored four or more points in an evenly distributed offensive load, including two of those efforts coming off the bench. Probably Stanford's best player in the game was center Rob Little, but his minutes were limited due to substitutions and foul trouble. In his stead, Matt Haryasz and Joe Kirchofer scored a combined eight points in the second half. By contrast, the entire Cal bench floundered their way to a total of seven points in the game.
Maybe more importantly, Stanford pulled away in the second half due to their team defense. Cal had made some pretty tough shots in the first half, including an off-balance three-pointer by the set-shooting Amit Tamir and several garbage shots tossed up by their guards. In the second half, Stanford held the Bears to just eight field goals and 27.6% shooting.
The vaunted Leon Powe was held to zero field goals in the game, scoring just seven points - all from the free throw line. The insufferable Richard Midgely was held to 2-of-10 shooting. After hot shooting in the first half, Tamir could not get off an attempt until the 12th minute of the second half. Tamir missed all three of his second half shots before hitting a meaningless layup with two seconds left in regulation.
In a game of two hard-nosed defenses, Stanford was clearly better. Top defensive intensity and strategy has been the constant this year for this undefeated Cardinal squad, though. What has varied from half to half, from game to game, has been the rollercoaster roles on offense. Hernandez has been quiet in games, and then inspiring in others. Lottich has been his streaky self. Absent Justin Davis, the scoring load from the power forward position has been very inconsistent.
So it was a very encouraging sign that the improving Josh Childress had the best balance of offense we have seen from him in a defensive battle like this all year. He put up seven points in the first half, and eight big points in the second stanza. Those second half points were more crucial because Stanford had to find offense when Rob Little was out of the game.
Little had flat-out dominated in the first half, with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting when little else was working on offense. The Cal defensive strategy was to overplay on the wings and do everything in their power to deny the ball and shots for Hernandez and Lottich. That left the ultra-soft Tamir often to guard Little one-on-one, and the the Stanford junior went to work on him.
"We attacked their pressure, and that is what you have to do against pressure," Little explains. "Nick and Lotty handled their pressure well and were able to find me on drops and post-up opportunities."
"I did OK," the modest Little adds.
But in such a physical and hard-played game, Mike Montgomery was liberal in substitutions for Little, which kept his minutes down. Then early in the second half, the 6'9" center was hit twice in less than a minute with fouls as Cal wings flew at him. He went to the bench with three fouls, and then he was saddled with #4 when he returned later in the half. Little only took one official attempt in the second half and scored just four points.
Other players had to step up.
Childress scored his first four points in the half from the field, but when offensive looks were more difficult in the middle of the period, he was the lone aggressor who was willing to drive the line and draw fouls.
Later, Lottich took that cue and made a surprising drive on the baseline to attack Cal's top-heavy defense for a quick lay-in. Dan Grunfeld scored from mid-range as well, and Joe Kirchofer unleashed his patented hook-shot. Nick Robinson had a bagel in the first half, the only starter not to score, but he used a little fake to free up a 12-foot jumper.
Cal had put themselves in a favorable position when they took a 37-35 lead into the lockerroom, but they did not score a second half field goal until the sixth minute. Stanford opened up the half on a 12-6 run that stretched to a 16-7 run, and the good guys never looked back. Cal never found any offensive rhythm in the second half, and perhaps they had blown their best momentum just before halftime.
Stanford was leading 29-24 at the final media timeout of the first half as Hernandez nailed a pair of free throws stemming from an A.J. Diggs technical foul. Diggs had just earned a five second call while guarding Hernandez, but then went out of his way get up in the Stanford man's face to jaw at him after the fact. Diggs was T'd up, and it looked like Stanford caught a big break en route to a big run.
To the contrary, Cal came back from the timeout inspired and went on a 13-2 run. They were getting great looks at the basket off Stanford turnovers, and the wheels looked like they might be coming off the undefeated bandwagon. With 20 seconds to go in the half, Montgomery called a timeout and set up to get Little the ball down low for the final shot of the half. Little worked the inside-outside game with Hernandez and found himself free on Tamir's inside shoulder for a clean lay-up. Tamir hacked Little's arm with 1.3 seconds left on the game clock, but the shot went down and Stanford had a chance to close the game to just three points.
Even better, Little missed the free throw and Childress grabbed the offensive board in the middle of the key. He was unlikely to get a shot off, but he was fouled and went to the free throw line with just 0.3 seconds left in the half. He drained both shots and sucked much of the life out of the boisterous Cal crowd. They had little reason to cheer in the second half, as Stanford slowly and surely pulled away. The Card never led by less than five in the final 12 minutes of the game, and they held a double-digit lead for the vast majority of the final three minutes.
- Many people will point to the defensive domination of Leon "The Show" Powe, with his field goal bagel in the game, but maybe as impressive was how he was held off the boards. The Pac-10's leading rebounder managed just two rebounds in the game, and zero on the offensive end.
- Matt Lottich attempted just one three-pointer in the game, which he hit. That would sound like a clear low for the season, but he also hit 1-of-1 last week in the Arizona State game.
- Joe Kirchofer fouled out with two and a half minutes to go in the game, and that was the first time all season that a Stanford player was disqualified from a contest on fouls.
- The 21-0 start is of course the best winning streak in the history of Stanford Basketball, but perhaps more amazing is the five game lead that the Card hold on the rest of the conference... with six games to go.
- While Stanford was sloppy in the first half with nine turnovers, and 15 for the game, you have to love the 18 assists on their 22 field goals tonight.
- Very quietly, Josh Childress has scored in double figures in every game he has played in this season, except one. That game was a 13-minute performance in just his second game of the year, coming back from his foot injury.
- Marvel at the stat one more time: Rob Little scored 16 points in just 21 minutes of play, on 7-of-8 shooting. Just fantastic.
- Josh Childress played 35 minutes and scored 15 points to go with nine boards. Matt Lottich was next in scoring with 12.
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