Hernandez' Heroics Are Half the Story

Fans, analysts and opponents alike have taken notice of the offensive improvement of late from Chris Hernandez. The Stanford fifth-year senior is averaging 16.3 points per game since returning from the abominable L.A. road trip, scoring 20 or more three times. The Cardinal are 8-1 in that stretch. But there is an additional reason Stanford is surging...

You can search the Stanford record books but will be hard pressed to find a better seven-day period of performance than Chris Hernandez enjoyed last week.  The fifth-year senior guard answered the bell in three different games for the Cardinal to pull out improbable victories:

Sunday Jan. 29 vs. Washington - Down three points with 2.1 seconds to go, Stanford inbounds the ball from under their own basket via a play called "home run."  Freshman Lawrence Hill hit Matt Haryasz at halfcourt, with the senior center coming back for the ball and quickly passing it to his left on the right side of the court.  Hernandez goes up with the ball for a chance to tie and draws a foul, when Husky freshman Justin Dentmon hacks at his left hand and knocks the ball loose - Hernandez flailing in the air.  As missing two infamous free throws in December against Virginia Tech, all Hernandez has done is shoot 96.2% from the line.  He would be a perfect 9-of-9 at the charity stripe in this game, including all three strokes to tie the game and send it into overtime.  Hitting three straight free throws in a pinch might be difficult for most college basketball players, but how can you expect anything less from a guy who has hit 29-of-30 over the last three weeks?  Once into overtime, by the grace of Hernandez' work, the Cardinal pulled away and recorded their biggest win of the year: 76-67 over #10-ranked Washington.

Thursday Feb. 2 @ Oregon - The Ducks may be struggling, and Ernie Kent may be teetering on extinction in Eugene, but Mac Court remains one of the toughest venues in the West.  Oregon was on the verge of a big win to right their season and pull their conference record to .500 and trail Stanford but just one game.  The Ducks led by five points heading into the final two minutes, but Hernandez pulled the Cardinal up by their boot straps with a big three-pointer that breathed life back into the Cardinal.  A Malik Hairston score put the Ducks up four, but on the next possession it was Hernandez leaping into the air for a critical defensive rebound.  Not only did it give Stanford with the ball and just over 40 seconds to close the gap, but Hernandez was fouled just moments later.  He coolly went to the free throw line and (of course) knocked down both shots, part of a 19-of-19 week for him.  Now down two points, Stanford possessed the ball with 31 seconds to go in the game and the chance to take the final shot of regulation to tie - or perhaps win.  Coming out of a Stanford time out, the play called for Hernandez to take a three-point shot off a re-screen.  In their five-out offense, Stanford had Haryasz first run a high screen, and then Hernandez reversed to run behind a Taj Finger high screen.  Nominally a set jump-shooter, Hernandez left his feet off-balance but squared his shoulder.  His shot went down, giving the Cardinal a one-point lead and win.  Hernandez scored the final eight points for Stanford in their narrow 57-56 win.

Saturday Feb. 4 @ Oregon State - The final-possession situation did not present itself in Corvallis like the previous two games for Stanford.  The drama instead stretched over more than 24 minutes.  The Cardinal's (and the Pac-10's) hottest player, Haryasz, was knocked out of the game with 4:21 to go in the first half when he was hit in the left eye by Oregon State's Sasa Cuic.  The Stanford center was dominating the boards and in his estimation, "on the way to a 20-20 game."  Prior to the play, the Cardinal owned a formidable 29-12 lead late in the half.  The Beavers closed the half on a 12-4 run, and the game was on.  Haryasz had scored more than 20 points in six straight games as not only the team's best offensive threat, but also their most consistent scorer.  For a Stanford team that had won just two road games in the first three months of the season, a Haryasz-less team could be a doomed team.  Hernandez came out in the second half like a man possessed and grabbed hold of the scoring mantle for the Cardinal.  He notched 22 of his 28 points in the game in the second half.  When Stanford struggled to find offense in the second half, Hernandez loaded the team on his back.  He scored 14 of Stanford's 16 points during the critical stretch, including a pair of three-pointers timed when Oregon State closed the gap to the most narrow margins of the second half (three and four points, respectively).  Hernandez owned the 71-64 victory.

Rightfully, Hernandez was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week for his work in Eugene and Corvallis, scoring a combined 48 points on 54% shooting from the field (15-of-28), 67% shooting from deep (8-of-12) and 100% work at the stripe (10-of-10).

After a stop-and-go start to the season, Chris Hernandez is firing on all cylinders today.  Through all games played this season, he ranks #11 in scoring (13.7 ppg), #2 in three-point shooting (46.9%) and #2 in free throw shooting (89.3%).  In examining conference-only statistics, Hernandez is #9 (15.4 ppg), #2 (50.9%) and #1 (96.0%) in those categories.

Hernandez is hot, folks.

"He's really played well," says senior Dan Grunfeld.  "He's made some big plays and stepped his game.  That's been really important."

"When you're a shooter, you going to go through some slumps some times," Hernandez offers.  "You just have to keep positive about it and keep shooting your way through it.  Also, I think hitting that [team] low and my not shooting that well, it was like: I can't get any worse than what I'm shooting right now.  I think that kind of peace of mind let me to keep shooting and not even worry about it.  It just came."

"I don't take that many shots, generally.  I just try to feel out the game and what is going on, and try to adjust that way," he continues."  If there is a situation where I don't need to take that many shots, and I more need to set other people up, then that's what I do.  If there is a situation where I need to start looking to score, then that's what I do.  I don't go into games thinking, 'Okay, now this is my time of the year to be more aggressive.'  Whatever the feel of the game leads me to do, that's what I try to do."

With the prospect of having no Haryasz tonight at Cal, or at best limited availability and capacity from him, much falls on the shoulders of Hernandez again.  The weight is more burdensome upon considering the superior talent that the Bears bring, relative to their Corvallis cousins.  Additionally, the Cal coaching staff knows in advance of Haryasz' injury situation and can prepare a defensive plan predicated almost completely on stopping Hernandez.  The fifth-year senior says that he does not mentally approach this game and situation differently from any other part of the season.

"I just like to play on the feel of the game," Hernandez explains.  "Obviously when you lose your leading scorer, other people are going to have to step up and make plays.  That's what happened [at Oregon State].  I had opportunities, and we were running plays that gave me good looks.  I just took advantage of that."

Despite the heroic efforts, and the marked overall improvement in his game, the offense of Hernandez (and Haryasz for that matter) is only half the story in Stanford's surge of late.  It was not long ago that the Cardinal laid claim to the basement of Pac-10 defense, particularly from the perimeter.  As recently as two weeks ago, Stanford ranked ninth in field goal percentage defense and ninth in three-point percentage defense in the conference.  Four games later the Cardinal stand at sixth and fifth, respectively.  In conference-only statistics, Stanford is seventh and third, respectively.

The last three games have been the best defense Stanford has statistically delivered in a long time:

  FG Pct. Defense 3-pt FG Pct. Defense
Washington 36.6% 11.8%
Oregon 39.7% 26.3%
Oregon State 37.3% 20.0%

Stanford has been able to stomach mini-slumps of scoring during games, and in Corvallis the devastating loss of their best scorer, because Stanford's team defense has picked up.  These grind-it-out games can be nailbiters to watch, but the fact remains that Stanford has the longest current winning streak in the conference at five games.  The defense has done as much or more toward those wins than Hernandez' heroics or any other offensive efforts.

Part of that defensive improvement has come, no doubt, due to the mix of defenses that the Cardinal coaching staff is calling from the sideline.  When an opponent heats up on a run, Stanford switches between its man and zone defenses.  Teams have been unable to reach a rhythm against the variegated Cardinal defense, keeping scores lower, which favors an uneven offensive team like Stanford.

But beyond playcalling, the execution of those defenses is night and day from where Stanford was playing in November and December.  Opponents are scoring less in transition, having to play deeper into the shot clock, and working hard to get open shots.

"I think we've become a little more familiar with playing with each other and what to expect in tendencies from everybody - what we anticipate is going to happen," Hernandez describes.  "Generally, though, I think people have just bowed down and said, 'I'm not going to let my guy score.  I'm going to make it difficult.  I'm going to help out when something happens.'  We didn't have that mindset in the beginning of the year."

"I think we've gotten to shooters a lot better, and they've had to put it on the ground," he adds.  "I think a lot of times in the past we just let guys get wide-open shots without contesting them.  I think we've contested a lot more shots, which is making it more difficult for people to score."

"I think it's been a consistent strength the last month," Trent Johnson says of Stanford's defense.  "But are we playing at our best?  No."

"I think that at crucial times in the game, we have managed to get the key rebound - managed to get the key stop.  And we've managed to keep our poise," Johnson comments. "But for us to continue to be successful, we've got to have guys coming off the bench playing at a higher level and continuing to rebound and defend."

With Haryasz injured, Johnson's rally cry is at the core of tonight's blueprint against Cal.  Hernandez will be called upon for big plays at big moments, but the balance of the game will depend on whether Stanford can stem the tide of the most balanced inside-outside lineup in the conference.  Basketball is a game of runs, and the Cardinal can hang in tonight if they defend and rebound.  It may be a boring recipe, but there is no solace in an exciting loss.  A grinding win tonight would put Stanford in sole possession of second place in the conference, which is worth more any scoring binge.

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