Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.
Despite the horror of Stanford's first performance up in Spokane two-plus months ago, not many fans truly thought Washington State could reproduce that domination of the Cardinal. Not in Maples Pavilion. Not against mighty Stanford, who carried a 17-game winning streak over the Cougars coming into this season. Now the Card are riding a two-game losing streak against their brethren from the Palouse after a second straight undressing by Dick Bennett, 59-48.
It is true that Washington State has a style and execution on both offense and defense that has been difficult for teams up and down the Pac-10 this year. They are a marvelously coached team, and Bennett's boys shined brightly on this night. But there was more than just "style" that led to this loss. Take note of some of the statistical oddities and outliers from this game by Washington State:
- WSU shot their highest field goal percentage in a half this season, with 82.4% (14 of 17) in the second half.
- WSU tied for their most points scored in a half this season, with 43 in the second half.
- WSU had their best single-half defensive scoring performance of the season, holding Stanford to just 12 points in the first half.
This wasn't just Washington State being a bad matchup for Stanford this year. This was a bad matchup blown up like Barry Bonds on "the cream." The Card were as bad as we have seen all year on offense, shooting just 19.2% in the first and then "surging" to a breakneck 37.5% in the second half. They shot 3-of-21 from three-point range for the game. Chris Hernandez carried half of that embarrassing burden with 2-of-10 shooting from outside, as part of his 3-of-16 overall evening. Matt Haryasz shot just 5-of-14 (1-of-2 three-pointers), while Nick Robinson was 2-of-12 (0-of-6).
The Cougars had nearly equivalent problems on offense in the first half, shooting below 20% until they made three of their seven field goals in the final three-plus minutes. But Stanford's hard-nosed defense faded to oblivion after halftime, as they consistently broke down late in the shot clock and yielded lay-ups for WSU. It is hard to imagine the #1 field goal percentage defense team in the Pac-10 (conference games) allowing more than 82% shooting in a half, but that was what the Cougars enjoyed over the final 20 minutes of play.
"I just have to laugh," said Bennett afterward of his team's second half offense. "For a team that couldn't spit in the ocean, we shot it well."
The veteran coach also acknowledged a little bit of luck his team had on the evening, but they created their good fortune through superior play. The Cougars were nearly iron-clad on defense, yielding points to Stanford only on a smattering of transition plays and difficult shots near the basket. On offense, Washington State did precisely what we heard this week from Cardinal players and coaches: they lull you to sleep and then take advantage of your mistake late in the shot clock. Those mistakes cascaded down on the Cardinal and their would-be NCAA Tournament chances like the pounding rain outside Maples Pavilion.
"That's what hurts you," vented a disappointed and frustrated Rob Little. "They run their offense, and then [Thomas] Kelati hits a jumper or they get an easy lay-in. And they ran 30 seconds off the clock."
"There were some breakdowns on defense, and they just hit shots," echoed a despondent Hernandez. The Stanford point guard has not shot the ball well for the last two weeks, misfiring at a 27.7% clip over his last three games. He had shot 46.3% from the field in his 23 games prior to the slump.
"I didn't step up and make plays," Hernandez admitted with his head hanging after the loss. "That's what you have to do if you want to win, and that didn't happen."
For most of the first half, Stanford played close to even with the Cougars. The Cardinal in fact took a 12-10 lead at the 5:52 mark, when a Hernandez lob pass found Little in the paint. The senior center gave a pump fake that lifted WSU's Chris Schlatter, and then Little finished the score while drawing the foul. The three-point play was a high point for Stanford and Little, though sadly it was a premature climax for both. Little recorded five of Stanford's 12 points in the first half, to go along with seven rebounds, but he never scored again.
The Cardinal stayed stuck at their dismal dozen points for the next nine minutes (8:59). By the time Nick Robinson ended the epic drought with a driving lay-in, Washington State had run off a 15-0 run. That could be overcome easily enough in most contests, but in a game like this, those points stood like the Great Wall of China. For perspective, the Cougars scored more during that run than Stanford did in the entire first 23 minutes of the game.
"No one gets in a groove against Washington State with the way they play defense," Little commented on the 13-point deficit they could never trim to less than five.
Stanford made one spirited run, hitting four straight baskets for an 8-0 run to close the gap to five points at 20-25. All four scores came on drives attacking the basket and finishing in the paint, which was the principle gameplan for the Cardinal in this contest. Three of those four buckets came off Washington State misses or turnovers, which let Stanford get on the break. But when WSU missed only one field goal attempt in the final 15-plus minutes of the half, those opportunities could not be duplicated.
It did not help matters that Stanford left critical points at the free throw line. Hernandez missed the front end of a one-and-one bonus situation late in the first half during the early part of their scoreless stretch, and Fred Washington bricked three free throws in the first five minutes of the second half. Those five points were the difference in the game at the end of Stanford's run, but they were certainly not the ultimate separation in this contest. According to Trent Johnson, there was a gap in something much more fundamental between the Card and Cougs.
"Basically they were tougher. They made open shots and we didn't. Honestly, I don't have an explanation," Johnson lamented. "They were the aggressor from start to finish - on our court."
The first-year Cardinal head coach has been self-deprecating throughout the season, making weekly references to his players' misfortune of inheriting him after losing a "Hall of Fame" coach (Mike Montgomery). But that comes across as a shtick more than anything else. He has done some good coaching this year, and he must know it. But after this game, he was as sincerely down on his coaching job and his players as any time we have seen this year.
"Very disappointing," he summed up on the evening, as he shook his head. "They're the tougher basketball team. They played more aggressive... they're better coached."
Johnson added that the coaching staff emphasized driving to the basket in their preparation for Washington State ("Going into the game, that's all we talked about."), but the Cougars and Dick Bennett had a superlative handle on the impotence of the Stanford offense. Hearing Bennett speak after the game, in fact, perfectly crystallized the Cardinal's current state of affairs on offense.
"It was the fact that they didn't have as many creators as the first time around. Losing Danny [Grunfeld] was huge." Bennett articulated. "We thought [Stanford's] missing that one guy who could create on offense... was clearly a huge advantage for us."
Grunfeld was the only Stanford player who cracked double digits in scoring (18 points) when the two teams faced off on December 31. The two players next the in scoring column were Tim Morris and Chris Hernandez. Unsurprisingly, Bennett felt he had one remaining focus as he scouted this Stanford roster - just one player who could possibly hurt him. So he schemed against that player and hounded him into possibly the worst game of this year and one of the darkest of his college career.
"We really keyed on Chris [Hernandez] every time he touched the ball," Bennett succinctly stated.
With this loss, Stanford moves backward and own an underwhelming 16-11 record on the year. They are squarely on the infamous "bubble" in bracketology parlance, and the road ahead looks menacing. The Card will try to right their ship Saturday when Washington comes to Maples Pavilion, with the Huskies fresh off a laugher in Berkeley (106-73). Washington is the hottest team in the conference, and they will be sizable favorites over Stanford. If the Cardinal cannot claim a win in their regular season finale, they will be looking for at least one or two wins in the Pac-10 Tournament, which shows little more promise. Stanford will be either a #3 or #4 seed in that eight-team event in Los Angeles, and any opponent they could face is problematic. Should Stanford take the #4 seed with a loss on Saturday, they would probably play Oregon State in the opening round. The Beavers of course handed Stanford their loss previous to Thursday night's stinker. If the Cardinal hold onto the #3 seed with a win Saturday or a UCLA loss against Oregon, then they would likely get to play this same Washington State team again. If not the Cougars, then they would probably meet Arizona State, who has already swept Stanford this year.
- The last time Stanford scored as few as 48 points? You have to go back to the black 1992-93 season, when Stanford was spanked in Charlottesville, 72-48.
- The last time Washington State won a game at Maples Pavilion? Nine years ago in the 1995-96 season: 68-59.
- The last time Stanford was swept by WSU in the regular season? Again, the infamous 1992-93 season.
- Card killer Jeff Varem was beautifully defended by Nick Robinson in this game. Two of the Cougar senior's four baskets came on prayer bank shots, and at least one came when Robinson was on the bench and Fred Washington had the defensive assignment. Thomas Kelati shot 4-of-10 from the field for 14 points, but he was not his team's leading scorer. That honor went to freshman center Robbie Cowgill, who recorded a career-high 15 points. He had averaged just 6.0 points coming into the game and only three times all year nudged into double digits. Fellow frosh post Daven Harmeling added nine points, more than tripling his 2.9 ppg average. It was these two anonymous and unheralded frosh big men who hurt Stanford in the most unexpected and painful way Thursday night. Freshman point guard Derrick Low added 10 points.
- His night was far from commendable, but Matt Haryasz did lead Stanford in scoring and rebounding with 17 points and 12 boards. It was the junior forward/center's eighth double-double in his last 11 games.
- Stanford's 3-of-21 three-point shooting for 14.3% was its lowest percentage of the Pac-10 season. The only other game in the 2004-05 season that dipped lower was the 1-of-9 performance (11.1%) at Michigan State.
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