Finale Flame-Out

Stanford looked no part of the #1 team in America today in their 75-62 loss at Washington. Their vaunted zone defense was slack in execution, yielding too many open perimeter shots, which the Huskies were happy to convert. The Cardinal offense was 40-minute house of horrors, including 20% three-point shooting and 18 turnovers. Worse than failing to land a perfect Pac-10 record, the Card finish this road trip in a funk.

Coming into today's game, I said that the battle in Seattle was the test this year for this Stanford Basketball team. East Coast observers will look down their collective nose at that statement, given the widely publicized strength of schedule and RPI for the Washington Huskies, but here is what we knew coming into the game:

  • UW was 11-2 in their last 13 games coming into this contest, one of the very hottest teams in America. Their only two losses came on the road at UCLA, where they trailed by just one point in the final minute, and at North Carolina State, where the Huskies led the red-hot Wolfpack most of the second half.
  • The newly renovated Hec Edmundson Pavilion (now "Bank of America Arena") was sure to be as electric, loud and intense as any gym in the country today. Layer that on top of the two-week media buildup toward this game, and you knew the game would hold an NCAA Tournament atmosphere from tip to final buzzer.
  • The Huskies are a team playing with both confidence and aggression on both ends of the floor. They slash and attack on offense, and dish for open perimeter shots when available. On defense, they have a great set of athletes who pressure at the point of attack and swarm to the ball.

True to form, this sold-out game in Seattle had 40 minutes of intensity and Tournament quality pressure. The game was regarded nationally as the final challenge in Stanford's run for a perfect regular season, but I held it as a litmus test for the State of Stanford Basketball. The result was less than encouraging.

The top-ranked Cardinal shot 0-of-7 from three-point range in the first half while turning the ball over 13 times and putting both Josh Childress and Nick Robinson in lethal foul trouble. The starting small forward and All-American picked up two fouls in the first few minutes and later his third, while the starting power forward also picked up a quick pair. With both players saddled with foul trouble before the first media timeout, freshman Fred Washington was called into the game and gave an encouraging early spark on the offensive end. He drove the lane and scored on an aggressive slashing play that ended with a leaping finger roll, which at the time gave Stanford a 13-11 lead. The two teams traded two-point makes in the next minute, but the 15-13 lead would be the last Stanford would enjoy all game.

Washington never again enjoyed success, and Mike Montgomery pulled him back onto the bench after a pair of line-drive three-point attempts that bricked squarely off the front side of the rim, soon followed by a turnover. The typically conservative Cardinal coach who rarely plays players with two fouls in the first half would play both Childress and Robinson again for extended stretches, and Childress then picked up his third whistle. In a sense, it seemed like the loss of either player might not be a loss at all, given how badly they were playing and shooting, but poor performances from most of the lineup this afternoon would not allow for such thinking.

Senior shooting guard Matt Lottich had undoubtedly the worst game of his Cardinal career, shooting more airballs than field goals. He hit his first attempt of the game, an admittedly ill-advised leaning baseline jumper under pressure, but he missed all 10 attempts from the field thereafter. Childress put his first perimeter shot of the game off the side of the backboard and managed just three shots all half. In the second stanza, he very rarely slashed to the hole and did not hit a three-pointer until the final six minutes of the game. Jason Haas gave nothing off the bench, and Dan Grunfeld had a trigger finger possibly more shy than Nick Robinson. Fred Washington gave as little in the second half as the first, committing two fouls and bricking another pair of perimeter shots behind the arc. With big foul trouble for Stanford's forwards, Matt Haryasz was needed for big minutes, but he was subpar with a handful of missed rebounding opportunities and none of his trademark shooting touch from the high post.

With the worst jump shooting I have seen from Stanford in possibly the last 10 years, plus a plethora of turnovers and almost no sense of offensive coherence, it was no surprise to see the undefeated Cardinal down 10 at the half, 35-25. It could have been far worse, with the Huskies hitting hot stretches in their shooting and, but two factors kept Stanford in some sort of striking distance. The first was the low post play of Rob Little, who was a monster on the boards and unstoppable on the low block. He made all three of his shots in the first half, once on an offensive rebound putback and twice fed with inlet passes. The second saving grace was Chris Hernandez, who thrice drove from the top of the key to force some offense when nothing else was working. He netted seven points from those drives, including one three-point play.

Little though missed his first two shots of the second half, including one that he rocketed over the rim on a missed dunk. Still, he scored twice down low in the first five minutes of the half when Stanford surged. The second of those scores capped off a nine-point run that pulled the Card back to just one point at 35-34. That hot Husky shooting was off, with Stanford taking advantage and creeping back into the game.

But a few minutes later, Childress picked up his fourth foul of the game and momentum turned in a hurry. Washington's Tre Simmons crushed a nation of bleeding Cardinal hearts with a trio or treys in the next three minutes. Stanford was playing their zone defense, and each time the Card made lapses in rotation that gave Simmons looks. He made them pay, and the #1-ranked Cardinal never recovered.

Trailing by eight points with eight minutes to go, the only thing working on offense was Hernandez. Though he sprained his ankle in the second half, he stayed on the floor and never gave it a chance to tighten up on him. It was Hernandez who hit a three-pointer early in the half to end the outside empty streak, and it was Hernnadez who put the offense on his back midway through the half with seven straight points and 10 of 13 for the Card. He continued to abuse UW's guards by driving on them and finishing at the hoops, and he also added a second trey. At one point he pulled Stanford back to within four. Childress added another pair of three-pointers, but Stanford fumbled afterward with turnovers and missed shots to slide to an 11-point deficit. Late fouls tried to stretch the game, but the Huskies hit 14 of their last 16 free throws to comfortably hold.

Final score: Washingon 75, Stanford 62.

"We just ran out of gas," says Montgomery. "We got a little tired, and they had plenty of energy."

By contrast, Stanford managed just three free throw attempts in the entire game. All three came from Hernandez as he drove the lane, and it marks the first time this year that no forward (or center) has made it to the charity stripe. By another comparison, the previous low for free throw attempts this year came last week at Maples Pavilion against Oregon State with nine.

That was a symptom of the offensive plague Stanford faced in this game. And this is the devastation of this loss. There have been endless questions (much to Mike Montgomery's consternation) about how a loss could loosen up this Stanford squad, and it is true that the pressure of an undefeated season has been lifted. But more relavent than this historic loss, ending the best run made by a Pac-10 team at an undefeated conference season in the last two decades, is the disappointing quality of play. Stanford stumbled badly in both games this week, with invisible offense from their bench and multiple starters in fierce funks. Thursday night it was Nick Robinson and Chris Hernandez who showed zero propensity for scoring, and this afternoon it was miserable shooting from Matt Lottich, Josh Childress and again a ghost performance from Robinson.

"We couldn't score; we couldn't hit shots tonight," sums up Haryasz on the awful offensive display.

The one silver lining is that Hernandez rekindled an offensive fire we have not seen from him in weeks, ending a prolonged slump. But we do not know how badly he sprained his ankle and how much that will derail him in the post-season.

There has been a stereotype that a certain style of defense can stymie Stanford's offense, but this week proved that the Card can clank just fine on their own. Against two dramatically different styles of defense, turnovers ruled the day as solid play from opponents catalyzed some pretty brainless play from the supposedly cerebral Stanford men. Ball rotation is no longer finding open perimeter shots for Lottich and Childress, with both players having to force too many shots in turnaround heaves or with defenders in their face. The inlet feeds and lobs to the fantastic frontcourt scorers show flashes, but have become erratic elements of the offense.

There is very real work ahead for this team, far more than you would believe for a 26-1 squad.

  • With the rest of the results in conference play today, we now know the seeds for all eight teams next week in the Pac-10 Tournament. Arizona and Arizona State face-off tomorrow, but those desert duelers are already stuck as the #3 and #10 teams in the conference. Look for Stanford (1) and Washington State (8) to matchup in the 12:20 pm game next Thursday to kick off the tournament, followed by the California (4) vs Oregon (5) in the 2:50 pm game. The two evening games will be at 6:15 pm and 8:45 pm, featuring the two hometown teams as UCLA (7) looks to land a three-peat upset of upstart Washington (2) and USC (6) faces off against Arizona (3).
  • This is the sixth time that a Pac-10 team has gone 17-1 in conference play (Oregon State in 1980-81; Arizona in 1987-88, 1988-89, 1992-93, 1997-98), but only the Card and the Beavs rattled off 17 straight before losing. Arizona never made it 17-0. Their closest call came in 1998, when they went down after a 16-0 conference start at USC; Adam Spanich hit a three-point prayer at the buzzer to cut down the Cats in that game.
  • Stanford not only lost the first-ever perfect Pac-10 season, but they also lost the largest ever margin of victory for a first place finish. With a win today, Stanford would have held an unthinkable seven-game lead in the final standings over Washington. Instead, they finish with a five-game margin. That ties the cushion enjoyed by Arizona in 1988 and 1993.
  • After going the first 20 games of the year without fouling out so much as a single Stanford player, the whistles have taken an alarming toll of late. Joe Kirchofer fouled out in the 21st game of the year, at Cal, followed the next contest with Rob Little reaching disqualification at USC. Thursday saw Josh Childress foul out, and today both Matt Lottich and Nick Robinson fouled out. That's five players in Stanford's last seven games, and is at the least an interesting development late in the season. What it means is left open to your interpretation...
  • Chris Hernandez scored 21 points today, just one short of the career high 22 points he scored twice this year. All three of those performances have come on the road.
  • Joe Kirchofer played a season low four minutes today.
  • The Huskies could still flame out at Staples next week, but if the pre-NCAA season were over today and Selection Sunday were tomorrow, I would unhesitatingly assert that Washington would be in the Big Dance. A young team who started the season with a bad skid, they have ripped off 12 wins in their last 14 games, including two wins over Arizona and the only win all year over Stanford (by double digits, at that). Quality wins and play down the stretch are more important determinants than the raw unadjusted RPI that is so often cited by talking heads on every sports studio show. Interestingly, the Dawgs do have UCLA in the first round next Thursday in the Pac-10 Tournament, and the Bruins are the only team this year who swept UW home and away.

Complete game box score

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