Two Down, One to Go

All year there has been talk from Mike Montgomery and his players about winning a Pac-10 Championship. That goal was secured weeks ago, with an unprecedented advantage over conference competitors. But when Stanford went to L.A. this weekend, there was a very real and serious focus on winning the Pac-10 tourney title. The Card did just that in impressive fashion Saturday, in all facets of the game with a 77-66 win over Washington...

"It was definitely the game we wanted. We wanted to avenge our loss to Washington - our only loss of the season," proclaimed Josh Childress after Saturday's 77-66 victory in the 2004 Pac-10 Tournament title game. "We were all fired up to play them."

That they were. In marked contrast to the overwhelmingly awful display set forth seven days earlier in Seattle against these same Washington Huskies, the 29-1 Stanford Cardinal were intense, inspiring and at times electric in a statement game that righted the wrong of that lone loss and also righted the ship for a championship run.

Stanford utilized several runs to take over a contest they trailed for the first 15-plus minutes. Like the game in Seattle, the favorite Cardinal were blitzed by a prolific Husky start that gave the underdogs a nice lead. Washington surged to a 17-11 advantage on 8-of-12 shooting to open the game, with a range of shots from two feet out to 21. Stanford started with man-to-man defense and for just one possession switched to their aggressive zone defense, but 5'8" dynamo Nate Robinson slashed through open lanes in that series for an uncontested lay-in that sent Mike Montgomery back to man defense the remainder of the game.

"They made a lot of shots early," Childress comments on the hot Husky start.  "We knew they were a streaky team who could go on a big run.  He had to turn up our defensive intensity.  That's what we did."

Indeed, Stanford's defense gained traction and forced Washington into halfcourt sets with very few open looks. The Northwest nemesis shot 50% from the field the remainder of the half after a scorching 75% start, but they were completely stymied for a five and a half minute scoreless stretch that saw Stanford score 12 unanswered and turn a 26-31 deficit into a 38-31 advantage.

Interestingly, the lineup on the floor at the start of that run had Joe Kirchofer, Justin Davis, Josh Childress, Nick Robinson and Chris Hernandez in the game. It was a "big" lineup that might have looked fluky or experimental, but is actually something we will see more of in this 2004 Stanford postseason. It was short-lived in this half, though, with Matt Lottich reclaiming the shooting guard position after two and a half minutes of Robinson out at the wing.

All players on the court for the Cardinal played key roles in that run. It started with a Hernandez feed to Davis down low, who made a quick turn to the basket and drew a foul. Those were the only two free throw attempts for Stanford in the entire first half, though he knocked down just the second. The next time down the floor it was Hernandez again who made the key pass, this time, driving all the way to the goal and then dishing at the last second to Kirchofer for an easy lay-in. Stanford was now down just two points, and it was soon tied as defensive stops continued to generate offensive opportunities. A Justin Davis rebound off a Washington miss was quickly shuttled to Lottich, who tossed a lob over the retreating defense to a streaking Childress. The electric 6'8" junior forward finished with a dunk on the other end to tie the game at 31-31. It was the third tie of a game where Stanford had never led, but the first time the score had been even in more than nine minutes.

The Huskies had not scored in more than three minutes at this point. Their offense was staggering against Stanford's defense. Gone were the open three-point looks that the Huskies had buried Stanford with a week ago, and the opportunities to get out and run were limited after made Cardinal scores. Tempo early in this game appeared to favor Washington, as they raced up and down the floor to their early 17-11 lead, but that looked like a distant memory later in the half.

Stanford instead was finding ways to score in transition and attack from the perimeter. The most glorious sign for Cardinalmaniacs™ in attendance came at the 4:30 mark late in the half, when Justin Davis held the ball in the high post, 20 feet from the basket. He gave a little move and then blew past his defender on a dribble-drive that took him all the way to the goal for a lay-in finish.

It gave Stanford a lead for the first time in the game, which they would never relinquish the remainder of the contest. But that move was also a symbolic statement of "return" by Davis. He may not have all his lateral or vertical explosiveness back now. He may not have it back until sometime after the end of this 2003-2004 season. But the fifth-year senior showed the world just how big a difference maker he can be for this Stanford squad when he is in the game. A big and powerful operator in the low post and on the offensive glass, he retains his threat to pass or drive from the high post - knee brace or no knee brace.

The next time down the floor, Stanford fumbled the offense a bit but a fortuitous loose ball rolled Davis' way under the hoop. He picked it up and immediately left his feet to go up to the basket before Washington defenders could collapse on him. The Stanford forward was surely surprised to find himself elevating directly under the hoop when he turned his head upward, and to make matters worse, his momentum was carrying him away from the basket. But the agile and resourceful senior was not flustered. He reached up with both hands and laid the ball over the edge of the rim, behind his head. It was one of the more unusual scoring plays seen in this Stanford season, and it was already another confirmation of the versatility and uniqueness of Davis' abilities on this team.

The 12-0 run was capped off by a Matt Lottich corner three off some nice ball rotation by the Stanford offense. Childress made the final pass to find a wide-open Lottich as heaving Husky defenders were racing to the ball and lapsing on defensive assignments. The fiery Stanford senior drained it to give the Card a seven-point lead.

Washington answered and ended their drought on a Nate Robinson short jumper, and then Bobby Jones scored again on a slashing drive to the basket. The game was quickly brought back to three points, but it was once again Stanford's ball rotation that beat an undisciplined Husky defense. This time Hernandez drove the baseline toward the basket, left his feet and dished to Lottich for an open shot in the corner. That pushed the lead back to six points, at 41-35, and it capped off an 11-point half for Lottich. He shot 3-of-4 from three-point range in the opening stanza, though he would go cold from outside in the second act.

Davis also hit 11 points in the first half, with his final score coming on a Lottich lob in transition. When Stanford fans see the athletic Davis running the floor on fast-break opportunities like this, they usually stand up in their seats for a high-flying finish, but not today. Still cognizant of some of the limitations of his weakened knee, the senior forward was content to lay the ball in.

While Stanford would take their six-point halftime advantage (45-39) and stretch it to an 11-point victory through the second half, things played out very differently in the two halves.  The first period was a race, with both teams pushing the ball on offense and playing at a quick pace.  But in the second half, you could very clearly see players on both teams dragging.  The effects of playing three straight games in three days took its toll, as the teams combined for 59 second half points after 84 first half points.  The teams combined for 32.8% shooting in the final 20 minutes after a 58.1% clip in the first 20.

"I'm sure they were tired," Mike Montgomery offers of on his weary Washington opponents.  "We were tired.  Both teams staggered out there at times."

One player who played through his empty gas tank as if he still was riding a fuel injection was Matt Lottich.  Though it is a cliché, the senior really did leave everything out on the floor.  In the first half he was hot from outside with 3-of-4 shooting behind the arc, he would go cold and hit just 1-of -6 from that range in the second half.  Like any great shooter, his offensive mentality never wavered, but his afternoon was special because of what he did inside the arc.  A player known (justifiably) as a shooter with a fire and hustle that spark him and the team on defense, Lottich spent much of the day with his motor in fifth gear, driving to the basket.  Against the reputedly quicker Huskies, Lottich took defenders off the dribble and made his way to the hole with surprising regularity on the way to his game-high 20 points and five assists.

"You've got to love Matt Lottich," Montgomery praises.  "So much pride and competitiveness.  He's one of the reasons we are where we are.  He rarely if ever takes a play off...  He hit some big shots as always."

Josh Childress made offensive adjustments in the second half as well.  After missing all four shots from three-point range in the first half, he moved his offense inside the arc after halftime.  The versatile forward took all three of his second stanza looks near the basket, draining two and also getting to the free throw on one of those makes for an old-fashioned three-point play.

Another key in the second half was Stanford's rebounding edge.  After corralling just 14 boards in the first half, a mere one rebound advantage over Washington, the bigger Cardinal lineup started to dominate inside as the game wore on.  Stanford held a 28-20 edge in that category in the second half, including some big offensive boards.  At one point, they scored three straight baskets off offensive second chances.  The first came off a missed Justin Davis baseline jumper that Nick Robinson rebounded under the hoop in a Husky crowd.  He went right back up and put the ball in for a score.  Matt Lottich missed one of his 10 three-point attempts the next possession, and this time it was Joe Kirchofer on the spot with the board and putback.  The next Stanford field goal came off another Lottich miss from deep, which this time grazed the front rim and was snagged below by Davis, who went back up and dunked it home.

The Cardinal scored 13 second chance points in the game, and recorded a 48-26 advantage in the paint over Washington.

"They're quick," Montgomery opines on Washington's small but athletic lineup.  "They really get after you on the perimeter.  If you don't take advantage inside, you lose your advantage."

While that may sound like a lesson learned about how to properly handle the Huskies, who handed Stanford the only loss on this season, there is more to be learned here.  There are smaller, quicker teams the Card will face in the NCAA Tournament, and pundits will charge that they are the ones best poised to upend this almost-perfect Stanford squad.  But if you get a game where Justin Davis and Josh Childress, who I still charge to be probably the best rebounding forward tandem in the country, can rip down 16 boards - plus 12 rebounds at the center position between Rob Little (four) and Joe Kirchofer (eight) - you can win a bunch of games.

The difference inside between this team now and what faced Washington a week ago, of course, is Justin Davis.  He was given a surprise starting nod from Montgomery during the pre-game shootaround, and he went on to log 27 minutes - more than his previous two games combined.

"What's the point in waiting around," the Cardinal head coach asks rhetorically about starting Davis.  "We were happy to get three games in a row - there's some value in getting Justin back in some game stuff."

Davis scored 13 points on 6-of-10 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds.  He was aggressive and tenacious on defense, picking up four fouls, but he gave a big lift to this team for this tournament title.

"My main focus was not to think about my knee," the senior forward says of his Saturday performance.  "I needed to do the things I'm capable of doing.  Yesterday I focused on my knee too much - didn't have energy in that first half.  Today I wanted to do the exact opposite."

Complete game box score

  • The 2004 Pac-10 All-Tournament Team was announced immediately after the conclusion of the game: Arizona's Hassan Adams, Oregon's Luke Jackson and Andre Joseph, Washington's Nate Robinson and Stanford's Matt Lottich. Cardinal forward Josh Childress was named to the Most Outstanding Player, and justly so. He led all tournament participants with 21 field goals, and he shot 61.8% from the field. The Stanford junior tied for tops in rebounds, with 23, while he stood at the head of the class with six blocks.
  • Huge, huge props need to be handed out to Joe Kirchofer.  When Rob Little went down with first half foul trouble, it was Kirchofer who logged 12 big minutes.  And even though Little never picked up a third foul in the game, Montgomery stayed with Kirchofer for the final 11:25 of the game.  He played smart and efficient basketball, snagging most of the rebounds that came his way and routinely scoring inside.  About the only failing you can fairly lay at the fifth-year senior center's feet would be his free throw shooting.  He was fouled twice in the final minute but missed the front end of a one-and-one and the second time hit just 1-of-2.  If he hits those free throws, he hits a career high.  This is picking nits, though.  It was one of the best performances Kirchofer has had in his career, and it follows several other recent strong outings.  I have to believe he is starting to peak - at just the right time at the end of a five-year Cardinal career.  "I thought all three seniors were really great," Montgomery praises of today's win.  "It was fitting for them."
  • Stanford broke the Pac-10 Tournament defensive scoring record this weekend. The best previous three-game effort was 182 points allowed by Oregon in 1987, but the crushing Cardinal "D" gave up just 176 points in 2004.
  • One standout stat on defense, beyond the points and percentages allowed, was the Stanford block party. The Card registered 17 blocks in three games, just two short of the three-game Tournament record set by Arizona with 19 in 1989.
  • It feels good to go into the NCAA Tournament winning, but it should also feel a little unusual. That is because this is the first time in quite a few years that Stanford has emerged loss-free from the final pre-NCAA weekend. The last time this program won its games the final week of the regular season, they went all the way to the Final Four in 1998. The last time Stanford entered the NCAA Tournament on a three-game winning streak was the Sweet 16 season with Brevin Knight's 1997 swan song.
  • You may have enjoyed much of this weekend's work by Josh Childress, but he did take a couple notable steps backward on his perimeter shooting. He shot 2-of-10 from three-point range over the three games, dropping his season average from 43.3% to 40.3%. His bagel in four attempts behind the arc in this Washington game was the first time all season that he failed to nail a three-pointer in a game he started.
  • The last time Stanford made this few three-point goals in a three-game stretch came back in January and the Cal/USC/UCLA games at Maples Pavilion. The Card also made just 13 treys in that span. Since that time, Stanford had been hitting an average of 6.4 three-pointers per game coming into the Pac-10 Tournament.
  • This is the first Pac-10 Tournament title in Cardinal hoops history.  The event lived three years in the late 1980s, with Stanford twice reaching the semifinals and losing once in the finals to Arizona in 1989.  This recent reincarnation of the tournament saw Stanford bow out each of the last two years in the first round.  The Cardinal now hold a 7-5 all-time record in the Pac-10 postseason.

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