You didn't think this whole tournament would be as easy as Thursday's game, did you?
Stanford rebounded from a 23-point first half where they shot 38.5% from the field, and the #1 seed Cardinal outlasted Oregon with a 54.8% second half that saw 47 points go on the scoreboard in a 70-63 win. The game was much closer than seven points through, with 11 ties and 13 lead changes. The final tie in the game came at 61-61 with less than three minutes to go in the Pac-10 Tournament semifinal game.
Josh Childress led the way with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting, but it was ironically Nick Robinson who took the aggression at the start of the contest. The versatile redshirt junior took Stanford's first three shots of the game, as 6'11" Oregon F/C Ian Crosswhite was guarding him. The Stanford forward hit just one of those shots, while Oregon was hot early and put up a quick seven points for a 7-2 lead. Robinson was the next Card to score when he drove and drew a foul that brought him to the free throw line. There he hit both and closed the margin to 7-4.
On the other end of the floor, Rob Little was chesting up Crosswhite 24 feet from the basket and was whistled for a foul as he reached for the ball. Seeing one of this players a little too out of control in his defense, Mike Montgomery brought Little to the bench with less than three minutes gone in the first half. The pine would prove to be place of residence for the Stanford center through much of the first half, as he picked up his second foul midway through the first stanza after just 90 seconds back on the floor. He sat the final nine minutes of the half, and Stanford's offense struggled.
But moving back to the 7-4 game earlier in the half, there was a brief flash of excellence for the #2-ranked Cardinal as Josh Childress got hot. In a span of four and a half minutes he hit four straight shots to give Stanford their first lead of the game at the 12-minute timeout, 13-12. Two of those shots came as he streaked across the lane, left to right, and then made a cut to the basket to lay the ball in through traffic. His other two makes came on perimeter jumpers, the first an 18-footer and the second a corner trey. In the blink of an eye, the Stanford All-American junior had nine points on 4-of-4 shooting. That was the good news.
But the bad news overwhelmed that spark of sunshine. Childress went scoreless the last 12 minutes of the half on 0-of-3 shooting, and the remainder of the team scored just 10 points.
"We as a team lost our aggressiveness," the 6'8" junior forward explains. "We settled for outside jumpers instead of attacking. I lost my aggressiveness, too. I can't allow that to happen, at any time in any game for me."
To Oregon's credit, they were playing a physical and tenacious defense at all spots on the floor that helped set the tone for a very physical game. Stanford knew that would be the case, though, and brought their hard hats for the war zone. The combined defense of both teams were as much a contributing factor to the surprisingly low 24-23 score at halftime. However, Mike Montgomery feels that his guys also did not handle themselves well under the circumstances early on.
"I think we got frustrated in the first half. He had some great shots that didn't go down," the 18-year Stanford general offers. "The x-factor in basketball is who is doing what to whom. Oregon had that going for them. They just run right at you, and we did not respond well to that. We hurried up and made poor decisions because of it."
Many of Stanford's misses in the first half came on successful driving plays that went all the way to the hoop, either in transition or in the halfcourt offense, but only to end with missed lay-ups. The Cardinal's guards and wings had a particular rough go of it, with Chris Hernandez taking and missing just one shot; Nick Robinson was 2-of-6; and Matt Lottich was 1-of-4 in the first half. The team combined for just 1-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc as well, and that one three-pointer came from Childress to give Stanford the 13-12 lead midway through the half.
While Childress was hot and then cold, with little success from the perimeter players and with Rob Little on the floor just five minutes in the first half, you might have hoped that Justin Davis would come off the bench and spark something for Stanford like he did in Thursday's successful return from a six-week injury absence. But the fifth-year senior power forward struggled mightily in the first half on this day.
He once again came into the game at the first media timeout, subbing for Robinson at the 15:27 mark. As was the case Thursday, the ball went down to Davis right away in the low block. While he scored against Washington State in that opportunity, the Stanford senior travelled in the Oregon instance. The Card on a follow-up possession had both Davis and Childress on the right side of the hoop for an offensive rebounding opportunity on a miss, and Childress had the ball in his sights before Davis leapt and punched it away. Oregon recovered the ball and on the other end worked it inside to big Mitch Platt, who powered through Davis for score. Back on offense, Davis was whistled for an offensive foul when he set a moving screen. On another possession, a high entry pass over the defense was thrown to him, but Davis on a still-weak knee could not elevate to his normal height to reach the pass, getting just one hand on it before it went out of bounds. After four minutes of futility, the 6'9" power forward was substituted back to the bench and did not return until the second half.
"I thought Justin was a little tentative," Montgomery states. "The second half I thought he was better. He took his time. He's going to have to get used to playing with the knee brace and not playing at 100%. His knee is fine, but it's just not strong enough yet."
The saving grace for Stanford in the first half came elsewhere off the bench, as the Card went an extended stretch in the middle of the half with reserves on the floor. The Davis experiment was ended at the 11:17 mark, when Matt Haryasz and came into the game. Dan Grunfeld subbed for Matt Lottich at that same timeout, after Jason Haas had replaced Chris Hernandez a minute earlier. Rob Little was briefly on the floor with that lineup before his second foul brought Joe Kirchofer in the game.
Haas played a seven-minute stretch in the half, as long as any I can remember this year in a tight and competitive game like this without Hernandez injury or foul trouble. The sophomore point guard came into the game trailing 12-10 and left up 19-18. Moreover he took some offensive initiative with two shots in the half. Most games this year, Haas has gone with one or none in the field goal attempts column, but he provided a playmaking spark in this half. He missed a driving lay-up attempt, but he hit a deep two pointer just inside the arc on the baseline to give Stanford a 17-16 lead. Then it was Kirchofer who shot an eight-foot baseline jumper from the opposite side that rattled in for a 19-18 lead.
In the second half, Haas was needed out of necessity rather than coaching choice when Hernandez turned his ankle and limped out of the game at the 16:34 mark. During the four-minute stretch that Haas took the reins, he took and drained another long two-pointer on the baseline, giving Stanford a 30-28 lead.
"Haas went in and did a great job," Montgomery praises for his reserve point guard. "He scored a couple baskets and made a couple calls on his own."
One of those calls came in the second half when Davis was back on the floor and fighting for position in the low post. Stanford moved the ball around for a set play but couldn't get anything against the defense Oregon had setup. Haas pulled the ball back and made his own call for another play. The sophomore floor leader threaded the ball through an open lane to Davis on the low block. The senior forward powered through Jay Anderson for the hoop and the foul.
"Sometimes we get through a set and don't get anything," Haas comments. "Then guys just stand around. It's all about aggressiveness, and I just saw something I thought we could attack."
Coaches and players all agreed that an attacking mentality returned to Stanford in the second half. They needed it after a first half that saw them with zero offensive rebounds and three assists - two very un-Cardinal statistics. The lack of offensive boards was a particular sore point, and the players heard all about it at halftime.
"It was addressed in a very angry tone by one of our assistant coaches," Childress discloses with a grin. "For them to have six offensive boards and we have zero - that's not Stanford basketball."
In the second half, Stanford pulled down six boards on the offensive glass, with a big three of those coming from Rob Little. The junior center played 13 minutes in the second half, ripping down four boards and shooting 4-of-4 from the field. The entry and lob passes were working again, with Little on the passing as well as the receiving end. Twice he tossed alley-oop balls for thundering dunks to classmate Josh Childress. On the second of those plays, the leaping Cardinal was fouled and converted a three-point play.
"Rob and I have had that play since we've been at Stanford," Childress says of the statement alley-oop plays.
That three-point conversion was part of a run that put Stanford up eight points at 55-47, peaking with a deep 25-foot bomb from Matt Lottich. But Oregon answered with nine-point unanswered blitz and 12-2 run. As expected, the Ducks did it with three-point shooting, with the final six of those points coming from an average of 23 feet out by James Davis and Aaron Brooks.
It was Rob Little who quelled the uprising. He had just earlier missed a crucial front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity, but Stanford went back to him as they trailed 56-55. He hit a six-foot turnaround jumper to give Stanford back the lead before Brooks drained the big bomb to put Oregon back up 59-57. Matt Lottich threaded a beautiful lob pass in between defensive levels to find Little inside, and the 265-pound center turned around to put the ball in off the glass and draw a foul.
Little missed another killer free throw opportunity, but it came hard off the side of the rim and Childress ran it down for the offensive rebound. The ball went back in to Little, who was fouled and this time hit both attempts at the charity stripe. Stanford had a 61-59 lead, and Kirchofer subbed for the hard-working and heaving Little, who left to much applause.
Oregon tied the game when Luke Jackson drove and made a sweet dish to Mitch Platt underneath, and the game was headed for a nail-biting finish with less than three minutes to go. Matt Lottich missed a three-point attempt for Stanford, giving Oregon a chance to take the lead, but they missed down low and Platt punched the rebound attempt out to the perimeter. Oregon swung the ball out to Jackson, who was obviously trying to take over the game for his Ducks with drives and shots on almost every possession. The All-American Oregon senior caught the ball at the top of the arc and stepped in for a three-point shot that everyone in the arena could sense as the defining shot for this game.
"I know that if Luke gets the ball off, he would have scored it," Lottich describes. "He's such a clutch player."
But the 6'4" senior Stanford guard exploded out and stuffed the Duck downtown attempt. Childress recovered the ball and tossed it ahead to a streaking Lottich, who finished at the other end with a lay-up and foul. He completed the three-point play at the line and a game-deciding six-point swing. Stanford led 64-61 and never looked back. Next it was Kirchofer hitting a big six-foot jump hook for the five-point lead. Oregon still could not hit a shot and Childress extended the lead further on free throws.
The 11-2 run put the game away, and Stanford would win 70-63.
Jackson was held scoreless for the first 17:51 of the game and shot 4-of-14. Oregon as a team was held to 40% shooting or less in each half. Defense once again kept Stanford in an up-and-down game where the offense took time to develop.
"He's a very integral part of their offense," Childress says of Jackson, a summer teammate on traveling Team USA squad this past summer. "It was my job, as well as Nick's, to limit his touches. He's a heckuva player and it was tough."
Stanford advances to the Stanford final of the 2004 Pac-10 Tournament against Washington, who bombed their way to victory with a barrage of three-pointers over Arizona in the nightcap. These two teams face off at 3:15 pm (Pacific) just one week after their hyped battle in Seattle that handed Stanford their only loss of the year. The Cardinal had not won a game at the Staples Center in the previous two Pac-10 postseason events, but they look like they are playing to win this thing Saturday.
"We want this Pac-10 title," Childress solemnly proclaims. "It's a chance for us to get better as a team, but we want a title."
"I see that we're getting back to full strength," the electric junior continues. "As a unit, we're back to getting mentally tough. Our focus has reshifted. Everyone played confident [today]; everyone played aggressive. That's Stanford Basketball... Because we kept winning we lost track of what we weren't doing well before. We had to look at ourselves in the mirror and get back to work."
One concern coming out of this game might be the ankle injury to Hernandez, but he told The Bootleg afterward that it was a repeat of the minor tweak he suffered on that same right ankle last Saturday in Seattle.
"I just turned it," he says without concern. "I just had to walk it off a little. It won't swell and shouldn't be a problem tomorrow. Last week, we practiced hard on Monday and Sunday and it wasn't a factor for me."
Childress finished the day with a game-high 18 points, followed by 15 for Lottich and 13 for Little. Kirchofer led the way with seven boards, while Childress and Little each snagged six. Stanford recorded 13 assists in the second half and swatted eight blocked shots - four in each half. That final statistic was reflective of the aggressive defensive intensity that pervaded the entire 40 minutes of the game for Stanford. Montgomery afterward commented that he expects his players to be tired from the battle, which is something to watch on Saturday.
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