Defense Does It Again

For the 10th straight year, Stanford has won its opening round game of the NCAA Tournament, and the 71-45 final score might bring a smile to your face. But players and coaches have no grins on their collective visage after the dominant defensive performance against UT-San Antonio, given a slew of turnovers, aligator-arm rebounding and unbalanced offense. Josh Childress carried the scoring load with 26...

Since 1985, no #1 seed has ever lost to a #16 seed in the 64-team format. Regardless of what you knew about the University of Texas at San Antonio coming into today, that statistic alone was enough to temper your fear for the prospects of 29-1 Stanford dropping this game. The Card had decisive size advantages inside, plus better depth and defense.

Much like the script read, Stanford jumped out to an early lead, with a 9-0 run that gave them a 9-2 lead. A few answers from the Roadrunners brought them back to a 9-6 game, but then a 14-3 Cardinal run opened the game back up to a 14-point affair. Early on it was the Josh Childress show, as he scored 10 of Stanford's first 17 points on a 4-of-4 shooting stretch plus a pair of free throws. Mike Montgomery went to the bench, and they continued the run, with Matt Haryasz chipping in six points in a 10-point stretch. Sophomore point guard Jason Haas drove the lane for a lay-up in that stretch as well. With Nick Robinson, Dan Grunfeld and Joe Kirchofer also getting time on the floor, all was going according to plan. Race out to an early and dominating lead (23-9) that would allow easy sailing and a broad dispersion of minutes.

A Matt Lottich three-pointer and a pair of Justin Davis free throws helped move the Cardinal to a 28-12 advantage by the eight-minute timeout, but the remainder of the half was sluggish and never saw Stanford blow the ame open. Stanford would go four minutes without a field goal, and then more than two minutes before their next make. Turnovers stunted the Card's offensive opportunities, while the Roadrunners kept the ball on their end of the floor with a surprising stretch of offensive rebounds. UTSA's best rebounder is 6'7" LeRoy Hurd, and he was in foul trouble with two whistles befor that eight-minute media timeout.

But the rebounding battles were being won by loose-ball hustle plays, which is typically an area where Stanford excels. On this afternoon, however, the Card looked complacent. They would enjoy the slimmest of rebounding advantages by the game's end, at 40-39, which is inexcusable for such clear size advantages that Stanford enjoys.

The Roadrunners were having a tough time hitting perimeter jumpers, and their drives to the basket were met by a collapsing crowd of Cardinal trees. Despite shooting just 24% in the first half from the field, UTSA kept within striking distance with their nine offensive rebounds. They trailed by 14 points at halftime, at 37-23, but they found themselves down just six points after seven minutes of the second half. It did not help that Chris Hernandez picked up his third foul at the 16:01 mark, bringing Jason Haas into the game, and Rob Little landed his third foul at 14:32 and was replaced by Joe Kirchofer.

When Kirchofer came into the game, it was a 10-point affair with Stanford holding a 42-32 lead. The next offensive possession saw Matt Lottich turn the ball over to get the Roadrunners running. Their shooting woes against Stanford's stifling defense still prevented a rapid comeback, but they would find the basket on a short lay-in after an offensive rebound from a missed jumper. A couple possessions later, it was another lay-in off yet another offensive rebound that pulled UTSA to within six points at 44-38.

"We were making a lot of mistakes, but I knew we wouldn't keep making those mistakes," professes fifth-year senior center Joe Kirchofer.

"We knew we weren't playing well," admits fellow senior Matt Lottich, "but we knew it would come back to us."

There had to be waverings of doubt for the #1 team in the nation, though. A team shooting under 30% for the entirety of the game, with midgets beating them on the boards, was just a couple of three-point shots away from tying the game. The mostly neutral crowd at the Key Arena decided to pile their rooting interests in the Roadrunners, making the environment much like a road game.

The Card needed to spark their offense, but it was a defensive stop that righted the ship. Dan Grunfeld committed a foul on the offensive end, which put UTSA in the bonus with still 12 minutes to go in the half. Freshman guard Kurt Attaway missed the front end of the one-and-one opportunity, and the underdog 16-seed once again snagged the offensive rebound. They would take two more shots and grab two more offensive boards, but Stanford never lapsed in their defense out of frustration. The series ended in a shot clock violation. After watching the ball bounce around for more than a minute at that end of the floor on one possession, the Card went to work on the other end and ignited the game-deciding run.

Spacing and inside-out passing shuttled the ball through the scurrying Roadrunner defense to find a streaking Rob Little cutting toward the basket. He caught the ball inside the free throw line and slammed it home for just Stanford's fourth field goal of the half. The next trip down the floor it was ball movement around the perimeter that found Josh Childress open on the left wing, where he drained his first three-pointer of the game.

The lead was back to double-digits with a 49-38 Stanford advantage, but Childress was not done. After throwing in 14 points in the first half, the All-American junior would add 12 in the second stanza. He followed his first trey with another, but this was more impressive for the 6'8" athlete. Childress has been a spot shooter and always had his highest percentages from outside the arc when he did not have to move to create his shot. But on his second three-pointer of the game, on the very next possession, he came off a high screen at the top of the circle and delivered a quick catch and shoot while turning to the basket.

The Stanford scoring run would stretch to 14 unanswered points with four Dan Grunfeld points and a pair of Childress free throws. Grunfeld was on the floor for the entire 14-0 run, and he showed a willingness to attack the basket a couple times. His highlight play, though, came from the seat of Childress' pants. After a missed LeRoy Hurd three-point attempt, the loose ball rebound came to Childress 12 feet from the basket, where he had fallen to the floor. He grabbed the ball and threw it, still sitting on his behind, to Chris Hernandez. The point guard found Grunfeld racing down the court and hit him with a lob pass, allowing the sophomore wing to finish with a lay-up and foul.

UTSA made a free throw to end the scoring drought, but Stanford lowered the hammer to start up the scoring again. Matt Lottich came into the game for Grunfeld with six-plus minutes left in the game and immediately nailed a three-pointer. The next possession saw Childress get back to work, as he wove through the Roadrunner defense and spun for a 360º maneuver that finished with a lay-in at the glass.

Stanford would not score again for the next three minutes, but their defense kept the 63-39 largely in tact. UTSA added one more free throw with a little over three minutes to go in the game, but they did not end their shooting slump until the final meaningless couple minutes. After almost 11 minutes without a bucket, Hurd scored a lay-in with 1:30 to go in the game. By then, Stanford had its starters all on the bench and put its deepest reserves on the floor. Fred Washington, Evan Moore, Mark Bradford and Carlton Weatherby all got on the floor for the final couple minutes. Hurd put in five late points for USTA, but Fred Washington provided some fun fireworks late for Stanford.

He drove the baseline and drew interior defense before dishing to Moore for a lay-up in the last two minutes. On the defensive end, Washington twice stole the ball to spark Stanford fast breaks. The first was finished with a dunk of his own, while the second score saw him toss the ball to Weatherby downcourt for two easy points.

The final score showed Stanford with a nice 71-45 lead, almost on the money for what Vegas had predicted for this game. But players and coaches alike understood that this victory was a performance commensurate with a defeat.

"We didn't play well in the first half. We didn't play well in the second half," Justin Davis plainly admits. "There were good stretches, but overall we didn't play well."

Stanford ended up shooting 50% from the field and 43% from behind the arc, but it was their defense which alone deserved any commendation. They held a team who scored more than 80 points 12 times this year, and five times over 90, to a season low of 45 points on 23.8% shooting. But there will be more talented and versatile offensive machines that Stanford will face the rest of the way in this NCAA Tournament. They cannot afford to play so sloppily and expect to lead by 20+ points late in a game.

Not when the Card turn the ball over 20 times and give up 22 offensive rebounds to a lineup of midgets. The greatest disappointment in this game was undoubtedly the play of Stanford's big men, with Rob Little and Justin Davis combining for just seven points. Little pulled down nine rebounds, but truth be told, he should have had 15. Far too many times did he, and other Stanford players, bobble loose balls on both ends of the floor. The expectation was that Stanford could dominate the boards in a game against a smaller opponent like this, but instead the Cardinal open their tournament with a great disappointment. The concern is that other smaller and quicker teams lie in Stanford's path to San Antonio, with the possibility of similar failings.

Mike Montgomery reacted to what he saw and went small for parts of the game, playing Nick Robinson at the power forward position. The expectation going into this tournament was that Stanford's quarter of big men would ably man the post positions, allowing Robinson to handle the reserve minutes at the two wing spots, but we might rethink that after today.

Up next for Stanford on Saturday is eight-seed Alabama (19-12), who survived a nail-biter this afternoon in a one-point win over Southern Illinois. The Crimson Tide had balanced scoring with four players in double digits in the 65-64 win. They shot a hot 43.8% from three-point range, with junior guard Earnest Shelton leading the way on 4-of-7 downtown shooting and 18 points. Stanford was uncharacteristically unbalanced today, with Josh Childress putting up 26 points. Only Matt Haryasz broke double figures for the rest of the team, scoring 10 points off the bench in 16 minutes.

Complete game box score


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