Back on Track, Card Take Arizona Sweep

As dismal as your Cardinal spirts may have been after the home sweep at the hands of the LA schools last week, it's high times now with a complete road sweep in the desert. Facing a dangerous ASU squad on senior day in Tempe, Stanford continued its strong play on defense and the boards en route to a 81-76 win. Though free throws may have been the edge in this contest, the game was plagued with too many Stanford turnovers.

In a game where Stanford didn't take care of the ball, and didn't shoot all that well, the Card picked up a road sweep nobody thought possible by continued physical and mental toughness. The win over Arizona State was founded on another strong defense showing, dominating rebounding and consistently excellent free throw shooting. All of those categories needed to be superb in this game to overcome a disappointing afternoon handling the ball, with 24 turnovers. To put that number in perspective, the apocalyptic turnover-fest in the LA Sports Arena against Hank Bibby's relentless press produced 27 turnovers and a nationwide Cardinalmaniac cardiac attack. ASU only turned the ball over in this game 11 times, giving them a net advantage so strong that the Card could never pull away or manage a double-digit lead. In fact, it was the Solar Satans who led much of the first half, as Stanford adjusted to the change from the yo-yo zone defense they saw in Tucson Thursday night to the 40 minutes of intense ball pressure in Tempe on Saturday. Rob Evans encourages a physical style of defense from his guys, and pressure out on the perimeter, but that also produces wholesale foul trouble for his guys. Stanford took advantage of those fouls, hitting for 32 of 39 free throws in the game.

Free throws may be the least sexy part of basketball, which explains in part why today's ESPN-centric style of play has produced a generation that doesn't mind shooting below 70%. But for the second straight game, free throws were a standout difference in the game. The Card shot a season-high 82.1% in today's game, versus an abysmal 55.6% showing by the Solar Satans. And when two teams combine for 75 free throws - each over 35 - that great of a disparity almost certainly dictates the outcome of a game. Revisiting Thursday night at McKale, Stanford bested the Mildcats at the stripe 79.2% to 72.7%. Over Stanford's last three games, the Card have shot 90 free throws at an 81.1% clip. Those three games have been three of the top six free throw shooting games of the season, three of the top four since November. This looks like a real and encouraging trend heading into the post-season.

With Justin Davis back in the fold, albeit for limited minutes, the rebounding is back on track, as Arizona State never had a chance on the boards throughout the game. Curtis Borchardt almost outrebounded the Dirt Devils all by himself, but the Card cleaned the glass even while he sat with foul trouble in the first half. Justin Davis, Teyo Johnson and Joe Kirchofer combined for 16 boards, including a big 5 from Justin in the first half. As a team, Stanford dominated the boards by a count of 49-31, including 14 on the offensive glass that were converted for high percentage putbacks. C-Bo and JD had 4 and 3 offensive rebounds, respectively.

Overall team defense held a second straight opponent in the 30's, with a preponderance of man-to-man defense. Stanford mixed in a little zone when foul trouble struck and the lineup had to be tweaked. It worked like a charm, forcing ASU into a lot of bad shots from the perimeter. The turnaround after two miserable defensive games in Maples against the LA schools is alarming, and has propelled Stanford to the top of the final Pac-10 defensive ranking. After today's games, Stanford holds the top and final spot with a conference FG% defense at 0.418. UCLA takes 2nd place at .420, while a piss-poor day from the Berzerkeley Bears drops them to third at .423.

The scoring was more localized for the Card in this game, as compared to the very spread out team scoring Thursday night, as just seven Stanford players scored and three combined for 64 of 81 points. Casey Jacsobsen broke out of a deep early shooting slump to score a game-high 29 points. After hitting just 4 of his first 13, and missing all four of his three's, Jake hit his final three shots of the game, including a long bomb from behind the arc. Curtis Borchardt completely dominated the smaller ASU post-players inside, but added a couple huge buckets from 15-feet and out. His line, 6 of 9 from the field and 7 of 9 from the line, totalled 19 points to go with his 17 rebounds. Curtis has recovered competely from his funk at Maples of last week, and is showing again why he must be an All-American this year. His lack of pre-season notice, coupled with moderate in-season exposure, will probably keep him to second-team or third-team, though.

But Cardinal eyes are glowing because the Casey and Curtis show have apparently added a third act, in the form of a one-legged Julius Barnes. JB was Stanford's offense in the first half while Casey struggled, hitting four early treys for 12 points. Julius didn't play much thereafter, still nursing a sprained ankle, but he did draw four free throws, nailing them all.

The Stanford offense stalled in the late stretches of the game, though, which combined with turnovers, bad offensive fouls and some big ASU treys, made this game too close for comfort. But the Solar Satans never got closer than three points, and never got off a shot to even attempt to tie. It was that clutch Card free throw shooting that kept the score just out of reach, and a big part of that credit goes to Tony Giovacchini. For the third time this year, Tony G hit big free throws at the end of the game, when his offense wasn't otherwise there. His 6 straight shots from the stripe in the final minutes today were huge, even though he did not register a field goal.

Josh Childress logged important minutes again in this game, with a gimpy Julius sparingly used by Monty. Josh unfortunately had another tough shooting day, missing all four shots from outside, and just 2 of 9 overall. It was seriously comforting, though, to see him unafraid to keep shooting, and to see Monty unafraid to leave him out there on the floor. The hook didn't come after the misses, which were good, clean shots. Josh did grab two offensive boards, including one in the second half that he put back for a big bucket.

The battle scars for this team grew in number, though, as Chris Hernandez left the game with blood pouring out of his mouth early in the second half. He took a head to the chops and lost a tooth, not to return to the game. To add insult to injury, he somehow was charged with a foul on the play, though ASU's Curtis Millage butted into him while driving the lane.

The final shakeout in the conference produced a very clear champion, and those Oregon Ducks deserve all the kudos in the world. They went undefeated at home and took two of their four losses in the tightest of overtime games in the Bay Area. Congrats to Ernie Kent. UCLA's loss to the Duckies today, with its share of controversy in the final seconds, drops the Bru-Crew to 6th place in the Pac. That continues a streak of finishes for Steve Lavin outside the top two in the conference, now at five straight years. And, that also marks the first time UCLA has finished below 5th in the conference. That leaves a crazy four-team logjam for 2nd place between the Card, the Bears, the Trojenz and the Mildcats. The Pac-10's tiebreakers will seed Arizona #2, kal #3, U$C #4 and Stanford #5 in next week's post-season tournament, by virtue of head-to-head records. The ironic note is that Oregon's heartstopping win at the buzzer Thursday night at U$C not only kept Bibby's bunch out of a tie for first place, but it also propelled kal from a #5 seed next week to a #3 seed. In a year like this, you can't be surprised at how much impact the little things can have.

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