Today's Pac-10 Tournament opening win over Washington State was the best of all worlds for the #2-ranked Stanford Cardinal. They cruised to a 21-point win with a double-digit cushion for the last 16-plus minutes of the game that took strain and stress away from the starters. No player broke 30 minutes of game action, and the slow pace of play that is characteristic of the new-look Cougars made those minutes much easier than a normal Pac-10 contest. The team executed well on both ends of the floor and regained the confidence and swagger that they have carried through the bulk of their 26-1 regular season. The most celebrated event, though, was the successful return for fifth-year senior Justin Davis, who played in his first game since his January 29 knee injury at Oregon State.
The athletic forward entered the game at the 15:43 mark of the first half, with Stanford leading 4-0. The early entry was a surprise to many observers, as well as Davis himself.
"I was kind of surprised," he remarks. "Usually Coach Montgomery will put injured players in later in the half."
On Stanford's first possession, the ball went down to Davis right away and he scored on a quick turnaround shot off the glass inside three feet. There was no plan or design on that play by the coaching staff to work the ball that quickly in that kind of position to the senior forward. But the score was a spirit-raising moment in the game and this season for fans and players, alike.
"It feels really good," says point guard Chris Hernandez about having his veteran frontcourt teammate back on the court. "He's such a presence - a great weapon for us."
Davis had joked before that play to frontcourt teammate Rob Little, "If I touch the ball down there, I doubt I'll pass it out." With another smile after the game, he says of his immediate offensive contribution: "I had to show Coach Montgomery I could score on one leg."
Davis found his way into the scoring column a minute later when he was fouled on the low block and hit 1-of-2 at the free throw line. The senior stayed on the floor until the 12:34 mark, when sophomore Matt Haryasz substituted for him in the game. Davis would return at the 5:12 mark and play through halftime, for a total of eight minutes and 21 seconds. For someone who just returned to significant practice three days ago and has not played in six full weeks, that might seem like a lot of game time. In the second half Davis entered the game at the 14:06 mark and left at 11:13. In the official box score, he goes down as having played 11 minutes in this return performance. On the clock, he played 11 minutes and 28 seconds.
"He hasn't really done anything in a while, now going on about seven weeks," Mike Montgomery comments on Davis' return. "We knew the knee was going to tell him what he could do... He needed to get his confidence back."
"There are going to be some days where my knee feels good. Some days it doesn't," the 6'9" senior says. "Today was a slower pace of the game. I was excited about that."
Montgomery says that he intends to play Davis more minutes tomorrow, and the forward is optimistic about his recovery given the timing of the games.
"There hasn't been much swelling [this week]," he offers. "Usually I'll feel that the next morning, but with such an early game today, tonight is the key."
"I was just happy being out there," Davis continues. "This is something I've wanted to do the last few weeks. But the big thing right now is to not do too much too soon."
Stanford has a 28-hour break before they next play, when they take on Oregon at 6:15 p.m. (Pacific) in the first of Friday's two semifinal games at the Staples Center. Davis also adds that he has more confidence in his return this year, whereas he had more fear and uncertainty in the return a year ago from a similar injury to the same knee.
"Last year I was a little hesitant - I had never had an injury like that before," he admits. "Dealing with the injury before, I knew not much could happen to me today. The brace protects me."
While his timing was admittedly slow in his first game in six weeks when he touched the ball on offense, his aggressiveness and lift attacking the boards looked good. He grabbed two offensive rebounds in his 11 minutes of play, both in the first half. The attention-grabber for the Cardinal Nation came during his second stint in the game late in the half. Rob Little had recovered a loose ball under the basket and put a quick shot up high off the glass that came down on the weakside, where an attacking Davis leapt and grabbed the board. Before coming back down, he put the ball in the hoop off the glass. Not bad for a player who says his knee is at 75%.
"My first jump is explosive enough, but my second and third jump is weak right now," the senior standout forward explains of his current rebounding ability. "And laterally I have a tough time moving from one spot to another in a quick fashion."
But that's OK. Neither fans nor teammates have expected to get 100% of Justin Davis back for this postseason run. The truth is that 75% of his abilities still brings something to the table on both offense and defense that the Cardinal cannot find elsewhere on their roster. Stanford is a pretty good rebounding team, but their offensive abilities on the boards take a huge hit without Davis on the floor. Defensively he has the size and strength to muscle up and defend the tougher power forwards in America in the paint, but at the same time he possesses the quickness to follow them on the perimeter or moving across the lane.
"He makes a psychological difference to the team," Montgomery adds. "He's a difference maker. We just have to get his confidence back, and his wind."
Davis however was not the difference in winning today's game against Washington State. The key was defense for the Card, as they held the Cougars in single digits for the first 15 minutes of the game after hold the #8 seed scoreless the first seven and a half minutes.. Stanford allowed only 12 field goals all game - six in each half.
"It was nice to see our defensive edge back," the Cardinal coach comments. "We set the tone with defense at the beginning of the game. We were concerned about the game since we had such a great game with them a week ago. They got our attention."
After a rough road trip that included a near-loss in Pullman and an embarrassing finale in Seattle, this team's attention was apparent. The still-lingering sting of defeat was not a cure for perimeter shooting woes, as the Card converted just 4-of-11 from outside, but they defended patiently and they seized transition opportunities off defensive stops. The game started with a 9-0 run, but it was the 11-0 run that put the game seemingly out of reach. Stanford stretched an 11-5 advantage to 22-5 with two three-pointers in that run. The second came with 6:10 to go in the half, as Chris Hernandez stroked a bomb from the top of the arc over a stunned WSU defense.
"The reason the score was 22-5 is because we were playing harder on defense," Montgomery hammers home. "I almost have guys buying into this, but if you don't play hard on defense, then your margin of error diminishes. It's no secret why we've been successful this year."
The Cougars slowly clawed back, finding their way to the free throw line when their field goal shooting was not working. They brought themselves to within 10 points, at 22-12. Then 6'6" junior Jeff Varem, who was a real thorn in Stanford's side last Thursday, scored six points to bring WSU to single digits at 26-18.
Stanford's answer to that run was their second four-point play of the year, ironic considering that the other came in the final fateful seconds a week ago in Pullman. With 46.5 seconds left in the half, Josh Childress drained a 16-foot jumper as Justin Davis was mowed down while setting a screen. The officials counted the shot and put Davis on the charity stripe for free throws; he hit both.
Stanford would go into the locker room up 31-20, but WSU's Marcus Moore opened the second half on a tear with a pair of treys in the first 90 seconds. That set the pace for a second half that saw more scoring from both teams; by comparison, it took Washington State more than 14 minutes in the first half to score six points.
Hernandez, who had scored six points on 2-of-2 shooting in the first half, opened for Stanford's first score on a 16-foot pull-up jumper behind the free throw line in transition, but the Cougars were just seven points back at 33-26. Matt Lottich chose that moment to can his only three-pointer of the game in five attempts, a deep bomb well behind the arc.
Then the Josh Childress show took over.
Scoring seven points in the first half, tied with Justin Davis for the team lead, Childress put the game out of reach. He drove the lane for his first score of the half, and then less than a minute later he struck again. This time he received a feed from Hernandez on an inbounds play under the WSU basket, scoring a quick lay-in to put Stanford up 40-30. After a Lottich 17-foot pull-up pop and a Nick Robinson fastbreak lay-up, Childress scored again on a 16-foot jumper from the right wing. A minute later it was an 18-footer.
Suddenly Stanford was up 51-32, and they never looked back. Childress would score one more perimeter jumper, his fifth of the half. His only miss in the second half came from outside the arc. Slashing to the hole and drilling jumpers, there was nobody on the floor who could stop him...
... except the officials. The Cardinal junior forward was whistled for three second half fouls, saddling him with four midway through the half. But Stanford's interchangable parts made sure his absence would not be missed. All starters would find the bench in the latter stages of the second stanza, as Mike Montgomery emptied his bench and rested his guys. At the 6:25 mark, freshman Fred Washington entered the game and immediately drained a 17-foot shot at the top of the key. At 60-39, the Card held a pleasing lead that they maintained the rest of the way. Matt Haryasz scored four of his eight points in the late action, with classmates Jason Haas and Dan Grunfeld both hitting their only field goals of the game.
Childress and Hernandez both finished the game in double digits, with 17 points (8-of-11 FGs) and 11 points (4-of-4), respectively. Childress snagged eight boards and blocked a pair of shots. Matt Lottich could not find his stroke behind the arc, but he pulled down six rebounds to go with his seven points. Matt Haryasz scored eight, and Rob Little scored seven. Justin Davis scored all seven of his points in the first half, a very successful return for the fifth-year senior.
"They played good defense," Montgomery offers on the WSU effort this afternoon. "If you have the ability to go to all five spots on the floor, then eventually someone will make a mistake. Ultimately what you want is for your best players to have the ball as much as possible. We have three or four guys that are capable of putting double figures up at any time, and that really helps."
64% shooting in the second half also helps. Stanford seemed to find a groove in its offensive execution as the game wore on, possibly a result of a defeated and disheartened WSU squad seeing their season come to an inexorable close. But there is a reason Stanford only registered two assists in the first half, versus nine in the second stanza. The ball movement improved, and the passes crispened. One exemplary stretch came around the eight-minute mark, when snappy passes moved around the perimeter, and the Cougar defense followed. But they could not keep up and the final pass from Hernandez found Haryasz wide open underneath for a reverse lay-up. The next trip down the floor, it was Hernandez who received the benefit of the passing as he was open for a three-pointer and drained it from the right wing.
What we saw was a lot closer to the Stanford team that we enjoyed the first 25 games of the season, and not the weary and wobbly version on the Washington road trip. The Pac-10 Tournament comes at the end of winter quarter dead week for these student-athletes, with finals waiting in the wing as soon as they come back to campus. The players have modular trailers for meeting space and lockers, and they are on the road for the second straight week. But the pilot light has been lit once again in the hearts of your favorite Cardinal warriors after last weekend's loss. It showed today.
"We hadn't had that feeling in a while. We had a sour taste in our mouth," senior Matt Lottich says of their first and only loss of the season. "We had great practices this week and it carried over. We don't want that feeling the rest of the season. We want to go out on top and play great basketball."
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