At least this night, Stanford fans and coaches should retract their complaints about the absence of television coverage for Thursday night games. Trust me when I say that you did not want to see this game broadcast to recruits or national pundits. Large stretches of both halves were flat-out ugly, with a multitude of Stanford players losing the handle on dribbles and passes. The officiating also stunted any remaining semblance of flow, with a rash of groan-inducing uneven whistles.
But unsightly though it may have been, this was a good game for Stanford Basketball. The team raced out to a 27-10 lead by the middle of the first half, on a 20-3 run that was spurred by defensive stops and forced Oregon State turnovers. The Cardinal ballhandlers routinely pushed the ball on the break on transition opportunities and scored with easy looks and trips to the foul line.
The ignition play of the run came on a three-on-two break for the Cardinal where Chris Hernandez found Josh Childress open on the wing. The junior forward took the ball along the baseline and went straight at the Beaver defenders and elevated over J.S. Nash for a dunk and foul. The jumping junior would complete the three-point play that put Stanford up 14-7 at the first media timeout. The #1 ranked Cardinal never looked back.
The defining characteristic of the game-winning surge was Stanford's unrelenting defensive intensity. Though observers were concerned that the Card might come out flat against the weakest of their four remaining opponents, on the heels of clinching the outright Pac-10 title, their fire was red-hot right away tonight.
"When we've been good, all season long, it's defensive energy," says head coach Mike Montgomery. "That allows us to be aggressive on offense."
Oregon State was flustered in their offense, despite coming in brimming with confidence from wins over Arizona and Arizona State, running down the shot clock and ending almost as many possessions in turnovers (seven) as they did field goals (eight).
Another concern might have been the downer the team experienced with the newest Justin Davis injury news. He and the team learned late this afternoon that his MRI still shows inflammation around what he calls a bruised bone, and that will keep him out of action through the end of the regular season. Teammates have been rooting like crazy for the senior power forward to get good news and start rejoining them in practice; today's disappointment could have taken the wind out of their sails and left them deflated. But to Montgomery's delight, they came out with some of their best emotion and energy of the season.
"Last time we played this team," Hernandez explains. "We came out flat and got in trouble. We wanted to make a statement right away."
"We wanted to get bigger intensity, especially on the defensive end," adds Childress. "That will get us better shots."
Hernandez and Childress were leading the way, getting out and running in transition for those easy looks, ringing up a combined six first half assists. But their energy also carried to the scoring column. Hernandez stroked the first points of the game on a defensive rebound that setup his own three-pointer. He would can his next two trey attempts during the big 20-3 run, finishing the first half with a sizzling 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting from the field and 3-of-3 from behind the arc. Any time he was in the game, the redshirt sophomore point guard was looking to do something with the ball.
"My legs felt good - my rhythm was good," Hernandez reveals on his first half sharpshooting. "I haven't felt this energized in a while. It felt good."
Unfortunately, the energy was not a controlled energy. Hernandez followed his third three-pointer up with an unforced turnover the very next possession that keyed a four-minute scoreless stretch for Stanford. He would have another turnover during that stretch and found himself brought to the bench multiple times by Montgomery in the half.
"Obviously I had too much energy sometimes," the floor general admits. "I was out of control with the four turnovers in the game."
Eight turnovers in the first half and 19 in the game has been the magnitude of mishandling that always sets off Montgomery in the locker room and press room to lambast his team. He puts a premium on offensive execution, which has been the push all year for this high-octane team to improve, and even the biggest wins have been dampened by his lamentations over turnovers. If any game deserved such criticism, this was it. Oregon State applied an alarming lack of ball pressure, which left the vast majority of Stanford's turnovers unforced.
Much to my surprise, Montgomery was very complimentary of the game. He lauded the defensive intensity that sparked runs in both halves, and he was genuinely excited about the depth of bench minutes he was able to dole out this night.
"It was nice for everyone to come out and have an opportunity," the serene Stanford coach offers. "This stage of the season, the last thing we want to do is run guys into the ground... I just think it's healthy for the locker room. It's not always about your best players; it's about everybody."
No starter played more than 25 minutes in the game, and five bench players logged 13 or more minutes. In the first half alone, Joe Kirchofer played 10 minutes and Matt Haryasz played nine. Montgomery played point guard Jason Haas through three fouls in the first half, in a concerted effort to get Hernandez rest. The Cardinal coach even inserted freshman footballer Mark Bradford at the point for the last 59 seconds of the half.
Though Childress led the first half scoring with 12 points from a variety of dunks, slashes and shots, and Hernandez lit up the crowd with his trio of treys, the story of the second half was freshman wing forward Fred Washington. He surprisingly saw just one minute in the bench-happy first half, with Childress and Nick Robinson playing a combined 19 minutes, but he came out in the second half with a career high 11 points in 12 minutes.
It started with a slashing drive by the frosh that ended with a one-handed floater in the paint. Then it was a drive for a lay-up. The crowd came to its feet, though, when he spiked a J.S. Nash lay-up attempt with his elbow in a rejection that would have impressed Ogonna Nnamani. The next trip down the floor for the Stanford offense, Washington spotted up for a three-pointer and drained it. He was rolling, and his teammates were leaping from the bench, thrashing towels around with delight.
"It's certainly positive," Montgomery says of the freshman's play in the game. "Fred hasn't gotten much of an opportunity. He works hard on defense and always produces when he's in there."
Another positive for the Cardinal coaches was seeing an offensive mindset for Haas, who hit his first three-pointer of the game shot the ball five times in the game.
"I thought Jason Haas was better tonight," the Stanford head man asserts. "Everyone has been on him to shoot the ball more. He looks like he made up his mind to do that."
Even Mark Bradford showed well in his three minutes of action, looking unhurried on offense and playing tenacious defense.
"We could use him in there a little bit," Montgomery offers with praise to the freshman guard, commenting that he could viably fill the third point guard spot for this team in the event of injury or foul trouble. Previously in the year, Stanford had gone with Robinson in that role, but the redshirt junior is now playing big minutes at the two forward positions and has no time to play the point in practice.
"You want to have a person with some experience," the coach continues. "[Bradford] knows what to do."
The flow of the game in the second half was too often ugly, and the scoring runs were mostly uneventful as Stanford never led by less than 16 points for the final 17 minutes of the contest. But Montgomery was truly noticeable with how at peace he appeared afterward. He did not pick apart the mistakes on offense, and instead heaped praise on the defense and his bench. He wants to win games and is focused on the threat that Oregon will bring Saturday in the Maples Pavilion home finale, but he has never looked more comfortable with team and players.
That is just one more reason to brim with confidence when looking at this team and what they are doing at this time of year. Their defense is winning games, and their offense is putting enough together at all the right times.
"I think we're reaching our peak defensively," Childress comments on the team's play in late February. "The offense will come. That comes with the game. We had a balanced attack tonight, like we have had all season."
"After accomplishing our first goal, to win the Pac-10, we set another goal to go undefeated," the All-American nominee adds. "We want to go undefeated."
- Also in Pac-10 news, the Washington Huskies went into the McKale Center tonight and upset Arizona, 89-84. The win puts UW in sole possession of second place at 9-6, while the Wildcats fall to 9-7 in conference play.
- Washington State also pulled off an upset in the desert, upending Arizona State in Tempe. That should solidify the 10th place finish in the conference for the Sun Devils, but more importantly it gives the Cougars a big leg up in their bid for the all-important eight spot. Only the top eight teams are invited to the Pac-10 Tournament, and WSU has now pulled one game ahead of OSU. The Beavers and Cougs will both be favored to lose Saturday, which should keep the two teams in their resepective 8th and 9th spots into next week. The 8th place team is of course of interest to Stanford fans because the Cardinal will play that team in the opening round at the Staples Center in two weeks. Stanford has lost each of their last opening games of the conference tournament.
- Stanford once again shot and hit a big number of three-pointers in this game, tying the second most attempts this season from behind the arc. The nine made treys ties their season high.
- Oregon State never got rolling in this game probably because of their three-point shooting. While Chris Stephens had torched the Card in the first half in Corvallis four weeks earlier, he did not manage a single long-range attempt in the first half tonight. OSU was a combined 0-of-5 from outside in the opening 20 minutes, and then just 2-of-8 in the second stanza. Stanford played man defense all night and made sure the Beavers did not get many easy wide-open looks on the perimeter.
- Jason Haas had been on an almost unprecedented non-offensive streak, taking just one field goal attempt in his last four games. The sophomore point guard last made a shot in the Arizona State game at Maples three weeks ago, and that came in a blowout romp. That had been his only field goal in the entire Pac-10 season. Then he hit two shots tonight on five attempts. He may not be revolutionized into an offensive weapon, but it is important for defenses to believe that he will at least shoot the ball and be a somewhat credible scoring instrument when he is in the game. Otherwise, life gets much harder for his four teammates on the floor.
- Chris Hernandez was on a cold streak of his own, having made just one three-point goal in his last three games and nine attempts. He started the game 3-of-3 from downtown tonight and finished 3-of-4. He shot 5-of-6 overall and led the team with 13 points.
- Mark Bradford scored his first Stanford three-pointer tonight, and just the second field goal in a Cardinal uniform, when he banked home a bucket in the final seconds of the game. Evan Moore also made a score when he logged a lay-up late in the second half. Moore played a big eight minutes, with his family in the stands.
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