One of the obvious keys to success for the mini-run of two victories Stanford posted in the Bay Area, against Arizona and Cal, was the play and health of Chris Hernandez. Without the veteran floor general, the Cardinal flailed against Arizona State. Backup point guard Jason Haas had a very fine game in Hernandez' absence, but he declared afterward, "We miss Chris." Considering how Stanford played the game prior to that against Washington, which was to date its best performance of the year and nearly a huge road upset, it was hard to conclude anything other than the dire need for Hernandez on the floor. The redshirt junior had a slow start to the year as he battled to regain his conditioning and skills after a preseason high ankle sprain, but he has come on of late. When Hernandez is healthy and can play to his capabilities, Stanford can be pretty good. That's the thesis for this team... or so we thought.
The 6'2" all-world guard came into Thursday fighting a nasty stomach virus that has sapped his strength during practices and required him to take in fluids intravenously before the evening battle at Pauley Pavilion. In a game that reminded of the famed Bobby Hurley nightmare in the 1990 NCAA Semifinal against UNLV, Hernandez was a wreck throughout the evening. And that was just his physical condition. Some insanely overzealous Pac-10 officials decided to dominate the game with capricious whistles against both teams, and Hernandez was a casualty with heavy foul trouble in both halves of the contest. The Stanford starting point guard picked up second foul nearly eight minutes before halftime and sat on the bench the remainder of the half; his third foul came in the third minute of the second half, sending him to the bench again for several minutes. Hernandez picked up his fourth foul with nine minutes to go in the game. All told, he played just 21 minutes and scored just four points on 1-of-5 shooting. When he was on the floor, he was visibly off his game with his virus-induced weakness.
That should have been a recipe for the home Bruins to finally end their Pauley Pavilion losing streak to the Cardinal, which stretches back incredibly to 1998. UCLA is on the upswing, with a greatly improved squad in the second year under Ben Howland; Stanford is having a down year as they struggle with a thin and challenged lineup under new head coach Trent Johnson. Take Hernandez out with a bad flu, and Bruin backers smelled blood in the water. The streak will stop this night.
Instead, the rest of the Cardinal lineup stepped up with the other four starters all scoring above their season averages. Dan Grunfeld threw down 25 points in a performance that was somehow quiet and yet still left many at Pauley buzzing after the final buzzer. Matt Haryasz played 38 minutes and gave his best game in weeks, with 14 points and nine boards. Rob Little continued his stretch of strong play with 12 points in 27 minutes. And Nick Robinson, who has suffered all year on offense, surged for 10 big second half points to finish with 13. Helping fill the void at the point guard position was reserve Jason Haas, who scored just two points but ran the show for Stanford marvelously.
"Chris was in a rough spot tonight, but Jason came to play," praises Grunfeld, a classmate of Haas'. "Jason was big for us, just like he has been all year."
Stanford did not shoot particularly well in this game, hitting just 45% from the floor, though 50% from three-point range (5-of-10) helped a little. The Card did not rebound that well, losing the battle on the boards once again. But they did lock down on defense, which has been the one consistent through this three-game winning streak in Pac-10 play. After allowing miserly scoring for Arizona and Cal, Stanford let UCLA hit just 40.7% from the floor and forced 20 turnovers from the Bruins.
A big part of that effort came from Haryasz, who was thought by some observers to be a mismatch against smaller and quicker Dijon Thompson. The 6'6" Thompson came into the game ranked second in the conference in scoring and was praised by Trent Johnson this week as "a pro." Johnson remembered recruiting the 2001 class while he was at Nevada and felt the three best wings in the nation were in Southern California that year: Josh Childress, Kirk Snyder and Dijon Thompson. The first two made early jumps to the NBA this past summer, and Thompson should be drafted this June. But Haryasz played the most minutes of any player on the floor Thursday night and kept a lock on Thompson, including a scoreless first half. That forced Howland to change his lineup away from the "four guards" as Johnson describes to a more conventional look with two big men.
"We talked a lot this week about who would flinch first," shares Stanford associate head coach Eric Reveno. "Would we have to go small to react to their lineup, or would they have to go with two posts to counter what we were doing. Haryasz stepped up to the challenge. He didn't give any high percentage shots, and he didn't bite on fakes. He stepped it up."
Thompson finished the game with six quiet and harmless points. Fittingly, that total combined with Grunfeld's 25 switched their standings in the Pac-10 statistics. Stanford's star wing now ranks #2 at 18.5 per game while UCLA's leader sinks to #3 with a 17.5 average.
While Haryasz delivered his strongest defensive performance of the year, he was a key component as well on the other end of the floor to Ben Howland's "flinch." Stanford very deliberately worked the ball almost every position to the 6'11" forward and to 6'10" Little on offense early in the first half. The two combined for 14 of the Cardinal's 33 points in the opening stanza to go with six offensive rebounds and 14 total rebounds. UCLA wanted this game to be won with perimeter play at a tempo that favored their guards and wings, but Stanford's post play made it a battle in the paint and played to their more balanced strengths.
"We got some good stuff inside today," Grunfeld observes. "Our guys got good position down low, which was huge for us. We just try to play at our own place, controlling the tempo and attacking when we need to."
Grunfeld took over in the second half attacking UCLA's defense, scoring 16 of his points. He came right out of halftime with a statement three-pointer to signal his aggression to the Bruins. The junior wing scored from outside with 2-of-2 shooting behind the arc, as well as inside driving to the basket. He was also a perfect 7-of-7 from the free throw line. 25 points and seven boards with an efficient 8-of-13 day from the field - it's just another day at the office for Grunfeld, who is consistently delivering home and away against all comers.
"It was just the flow of the game," he explains for his second half surge. "You take what the defense gives you."
Cardinalmaniacs™ are in love with Grunfeld's offensive emergence this year, and they cannot be more pleased to get an average of 13 points each from Haryasz, Little and Robinson, who have been uneven at best this year in the scoring column. But this game was won on defense. UCLA came into Thursday night averaging 81 points per game in Pac-10 play, riding Thompson and a fantastic freshman class. Stanford held them to just 64 points on this evening, in a house where they 8-0 this year. The Cardinal got their points, but their 45% from the field underscores the fact that they had a mediocre day executing on offense. There were several stretches in the game where Stanford's scoring stalled, in fact. For three minutes in the first half they went scoreless, and they added just two points the next two minutes. Later they went nearly four minutes without a score. A three-minute scoreless run gave a scare in the second half.
But UCLA never made any semblance of a run, precisely because of the Stanford defense. The closest the Bruins ever came to the visiting Cardinal in the second half was six points, during one Stanford scoring drought.
"The key all year for us has been defense," Reveno opines. "Offense will come and go, but defense has to be our trademark. It has to be consistent."
After an unsettling 0-3 start to the conference season, Stanford has rattled off three straight strong wins to even their record at 3-3. The Cardinal currently stand tied for fourth place in the Pac-10 and sit just a half game behind the third-place Bruins they just beat. Suddenly, Stanford is a factor once again in the Pac-10... a far cry from their last-place status a couple short weeks ago.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our website, as well as our full-length feature articles in our glossy magazine. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up) and The Bootleg Magazine (sign-up)!