Stanford defeated UCLA in Westwood last month because they were able to dictate the terms of the game early. Trent Johnson made it a point of emphasis to hammer the Bruins inside, and that forced Ben Howland to go away from his four-guard lineup to one with two true post players. UCLA's frontcourt play is not their strength, and they struggled shooting the ball from the wings as the Cardinal locked down on defense. Stanford enjoyed 25 points from Dan Grunfeld in that game, but without him for this second showdown, the pressure was ostensibly greater for the Card to dominate in the paint.
Early in the game, Stanford faced the polar opposite of what it hoped to achieve, as UCLA's big junior center Michael Fey hammered the Cardinal in the paint. The first three times he touched the ball in the game, he converted three shots for seven points. That third basket provided a three-point play for the Bruins, and at the 17:04 mark it also netted the second foul on Stanford senior center Rob Little, who was battling the flu this week. Fey had all seven of UCLA's points, and the Cardinal lost their big post defender for the remainder of the half. In marked contrast to the first meeting at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins had taken control of the post and had Stanford on their heels.
But Stanford showcased their versatility in this game, with a decisive 78-65 victory built on the back of the backcourt, with Chris Hernandez throwing down a career-high 37 points. Hernandez had a horrific game the first time these two teams met, suffering from his second flu spell in a week, this one requiring a pair of IV's before the game. The Cardinal point guard also picked up two early fouls in Westwood, finishing with just 21 minutes and four points. What a difference a month, and a little better health, makes.
Hernandez started the game on a much better note than his January performance, taking the ball on the first possession of the afternoon and draining a three-pointer off a high Rob Little screen. He continued to score eight of Stanford's first 10 points, with a variety of plays. His second basket came in transition, racing up the floor and slicing through the UCLA defense for a lay-up. Next, he scored at the free throw line after drawing a foul in traffic near the basket. Finally, he stroked a mid-range pull-up jumper. All of this before the first media time out, and it was clear that Hernandez was going to have an impact performance.
"I think the health had a lot to do with it," says the star Stanford point guard of his forgettable day in Westwood a month earlier. "Today, I wasn't getting really tired. I had a lot of energy."
Hernandez said afterward that the difference between high games like Saturday's against UCLA, as compared with his woeful four points three days earlier against USC, can be found in what opponents decide to do defensively. The Trojans made it a point of emphasis to blanket and contain Hernandez, which successfully resulted in a 2-of-11 shooting day from the redshirt junior. Hernandez did not let his scoring struggles affect the rest of his game, however, as he dished out six assists and masterfully led Stanford's press-breaking. Hernandez ran what Trent Johnson called "a good floor game," getting the ball to Matt Haryasz and Fred Washington, who benefited from USC's emphasis on stopping Hernandez. The Bruins gave less attention to Stanford's starting point guard, and they paid for it.
"They gave him a lot of open shots, and he can knock them down," commented Haryasz afterward. "They didn't do a very good job limiting Chris."
Hernandez admitted he had a little extra juice for this game, after his terrible time Thursday night against the Trojans.
"I'm not going to lie," Hernandez shared with a smile. "The day after that game, I told myself it was one of those games where I just didn't shoot well. Hopefully Sunday I could come out and do a better job helping the team."
Hernandez' father, Jose, who had coached boys and girls basketball at Clovis West High School in Fresno (Calif.), suggested to his son that he take some extra jumpers in the gym between Thursday and Sunday to get his stroke back on track. But the Stanford redshirt junior says that he felt a special rhythm in the UCLA game not from any jumpshot, but instead from a pair of drives he took to the basket.
"I think I felt it when I drove a couple times," he describes. "I went once to the left; the next time on the break to the right. That's a good sign."
"It was awesome," praises Haryasz of the 37-point performance. "It's something Chris is capable of doing a lot."
As Hernandez heated up, Fey faded for the Bruins. They continued to work the ball inside to him, which should have been even more successful with Little on the bench, but Fey missed a couple of short shots and was out of his zone almost as quickly as he had stepped into it. The big Bruin center would score just once more all half and play only 11 points. He finished the game with 22 minutes and never scored in the second half, attempting only one shot.
The Bruins hung tough for much of the first half, taking a five-point lead at one point with a pair of back-to-back three-point shots from freshmen Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo, but Hernandez answered for Stanford. First, he hit a pair of free throws, and then he followed with an inspiring couple three-point baskets. Hernandez has been adept at tickling the twine on set catch-and-shoot situations, and this year, he has shown the ability to shoot coming off screens. But these two bombs came with Brian Morrison in his face, with Hernandez simply pulling up and taking the shots with no respect or regard for his defender. Those shots took a two-point UCLA lead and turned it into a four-point Stanford advantage. The Cardinal never again trailed, and they stretched the lead to 10 points before halftime.
Stanford led the entire second half by double-digit margins, opening up to as much as a 22-point lead twice in the middle of the half. Hernandez was joined by Haryasz (12 points), Washington (12) and Nick Robinson (11) in carrying the scoring, and the solid, rounded games of those three starters were instrumental in the win. Haryasz had an off shooting game, hitting just 5-of-12 from the field and missing four of his six free throw attempts, but he led all Stanford players with nine rebounds, just missing his seventh double-double in his last eight games. Washington did not match his extraterrestrial breakout from Thursday, when he doubled his career high in scoring 22 points, but the sophomore small forward played in control and did many things well for the Cardinal. His eight rebounds and seven steals speak to his contributions outside of his scoring. He converted all three of his field goal attempts and scored half his points from the free throw line.
Robinson played his second straight solid game, with much-improved shot selection. The fifth-year senior attacked the basket aggressively and eschewed the perimeter jumpers that have dragged his shooting percentage so low this year. Robinson hit 4-of-6 on the afternoon and added 3-of-4 at the free throw line, to go with three assists. His minutes were limited in the first half with foul trouble, which put Trent Johnson's frontcourt in a bind. Absent Rob Little, Stanford often goes to a "small" lineup with Robinson moving from shooting guard to power forward, but no Robinson meant more minutes for freshman Taj Finger. The 6'8" slender athlete recorded a career high in minutes with 18, and he delivered a career-high of five rebounds, including three key boards on the offensive end.
Finger was praised by teammates and coaches afterward for the job he did defensively on Dijon Thompson, who came into the game as the Pac-10's second leading scorer but was a ghost until late in the game. Similarly, junior point guard Jason Haas gave a second straight stellar defensive effort, blanketing Jordan Farmar until he too forced meaningless points in the final minutes. Thompson scored 10 of his 19 points only after Stanford grew its lead to 22 and had the game on cruise control; Farmar finished with 16 but went most of the game stuck on three points until he wildly drove the lane in the late stages for 13 futile points.
"He just dropped his shoulder and drove to the basket, and the refs gave him some calls," commented Haryasz on Farmar's unimpressive final flurry.
The win gives Stanford (9-5 in conference) breathing room over UCLA (8-7) for third place in the conference, now separated by 1 1/2 games. The Cardinal hold not just an advantage in the Pac-10 race, but also now a much stronger position for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Bruins will have the benefit of playing their final three games at home, however, while Stanford will travel up to the Oregon schools this week and then host the Washington schools who swept them up North to start the Pac-10 season.
"Third place is realistically the best place we can get right now, so we need to shoot for that," says Hernandez of Stanford's mission in their remaining four regular season games.
"We have four games left. We can win all four, or we can lose all four," Johnson offers.
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