Though Stanford took the game by a comfortable 18-point margin, this was a game more closely contested than that final would indicate The Gaels took an early led in the game, and kept it through much of the way to a single digit deficit once Stanford rallied and grabbed the lead. In fact, the Card led their neighbors from Moraga by just seven points inside the five minute mark in the second half. And though many fans who saw the game or will pass judgements from this recap or a box score will tab this a disappointing performance against a mediocre team, that is not true.
St. Mary's College is a team in the midst of a turnaround under second year coach Randy Barnett. They won just two games all season two years ago before his arrival, and he bumped that to nine wins in his first season. The Gaels entered Saturday night's game already with a strong 4-2 record, including a very close loss to Fresno State in which St. Mary's led in the final two minutes. Though not blessed with a wealth of athletic players, Barnett has brought in several talented foreign players to inject life into his lineup. Those guys are buying into his system, and prompted one Stanford coach to call the Gaels the "third best college basketball team in the Bay Area" before the game.
The Stanford coaches warned their players that this team would play sound basketball within themselves, and that played out. Their offense spread the ball around, with a lot of good passes and movement into the middle of Stanford's zone, as well as reversing the ball against the pressure. In sharp contrast to the North Carolina team that used length, quickness and athleticism to take Stanford out of their game, this was smart and patient basketball that took it to the Card pretty well. In the first half of play, St. Mary's hit 10 of their 15 2-point field goal attempts.
"I like this St. Mary's team," said Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery after the game. "I liked what I saw on tape and I liked what I saw on the floor tonight. They spread the ball around pretty well, and we had to go back to our man defense, which fortunately we did a pretty good job of. I thought St. Mary's played harder than us, which I don't like to see."
Several players remarked after the game that they felt the rust of not having played the prior two weeks, and it showed. Despite scoring down low early and often in this game, which presented a number of assist opportunities, Stanford turned the ball over more times (18) than they assisted scoring baskets (16). Players at almost every position also missed short 'gimmee' shots.
But what made the night an unsightly affair was the officiating, which blew the whistle for no less than 50 fouls, including 28 calls in the second half that grated on the nerves of players, coaches and fans like a fork on the chalkboard. The referees for the game were a Pac-10 crew, and the conference's head of officiating, Lou Campanelli was present. After the game, Montgomery indirectly lamented that the direction from Campanelli, a former head coach over at Berkeley, forces these officials to call all kinds of contact. And when their boss is present as Campanelli is for so many games at Maples, the pressure upon them is heightened.
The shrill and repeated blare of those whistles struck both teams equally, with 14 fouls in the second half and fouling out both team's starting centers. Stanford's Rob Little was the player most harmed in the second half crackdown, as he picked up all five fouls in just six minutes. That was an absolute shame, after he started off the game so strongly, hitting six of Stanford's first eight points and logging a total of nine points and five rebounds in the first half.
But the opening scoring for Stanford was an important statement. The Card have been getting away from their inside game, and Montgomery has openly bemoaned the failure by the players and himself to get the ball in the paint in that NIT final loss to the Tarheels. In this game against St. Mary's, Stanford barely had use of Little in the second half, and had even less use of forward Justin Davis in the first half after he picked up two fouls and sat after just three minutes. Nevertheless, the two combined for 21 points and 16 rebounds in just 38 minutes. Forward Josh Childress was left to pick up a good deal of slack inside with the other big men's foul trouble, and he answered with 16 points and eight boards.
Though there has been an emphasis in recent practices to get the ball to these big bodies, Montgomery after the game commented that St. Mary's really set the table for Stanford's post opportunities. "They were going to overplay everything," the Cardinal head man said of the Gaels' plan, "so it left us something in the low post. Everybody is going to try to take something away, and if you're smart enough you figure out what that gives you."
As much as Little performed strongly in the first half, Davis deserves tremendous praise for his dominant return in the second half. In his 15 minutes of play after halftime, the redshirt sophomore scored 12 points and grabbed eight boards with extremely physical play. It was encouraging to see Davis come out so aggressive after picking up quick fouls in the first half, and in the face of very whistle-happy officiating in the second half. He single-handedly lifted a mediocre rebounding effort from the Cardinal into a 13-board advantage at the final horn. That hustle was also manifest on the defensive end where he snagged four steals, all in the low post or near the baseline. If the second-half Davis shows up through much of this year, Stanford could be very good. If the foul-prone first-half Davis shows up too often, the Cardinal will have their backs up against the walls more than they would like. Also notable that Davis was such a strong force inside that St. Mary's was forced to foul him into 10 free throw attempts. Not only is that a season high for the Berkeley native, but more than he had shot the entire prior five games. His vastly improved stroke and trajectory on his free throw shots was evident, though a couple bad rolls on the rim put just 60% through the iron.
While this game was won largely with tough inside play, the story of the game was easily the return of sophomore point guard Chris Hernandez. Though able to just see limited action, this game was the first for Hernandez all season. In the first half, he came in for just three minutes and was plenty rusty. His handle was loose, and led to one turnover when he dribbled the ball off his leg. Nonetheless, his presence helped the ball movement around the perimeter, and allowed senior guard Julius Barnes to move over to the shooting guard position. Barnes ripped off two straight baskets during that brief appearance by Hernandez, both long perimeter shots. Both would have been three-point goals, had Barnes not put his toes of his right foot on the line for one of the shots. Hernandez also came in for three minutes of play in the second half, and the improvement was already manifest. He created three baskets off his assists, leading to eight points. Barnes again was the primary beneficiary, hitting for a three-point shot at the corner and another deuce. Matt Lottich put down the other trey, as Hernandez pushed the ball up the floor on the transition break, drawing two defenders as he entered the key. That left Lottich open, and a quick dish led to the swish.
After the game, all the talk was about the return of the sophomore point guard. "[Hernandez] just passes the ball," commented Montgomery, "and the timing of our offense gets better. He's just a natural point guard. Julius comes off screens now and gets better looks."
And though Barnes enjoys the challenges and responsibilities of playing the point, he says he is as happy as anybody to see his sophomore mate return. "It's definitely a relief to have Chris back," Barnes explained. "I'm able to look more to score. In this system, the wings get more shots.
A reality check, though, shows that Hernandez is far from 'back,' and in fact was described as "a little rusty" by Barnes. He picked up three fouls in his brief six minutes of play, all of them silly and unnecessary. His lateral quickness on defense wasn't there, either, and is probably going to be the last thing to come back to 100% for him. "I was in my mind telling myself to move, but my body didn't react fast enough," Hernandez admitted after the game. "I'm not yet where I was before I was hurt."
The best news, though, might be that Hernandez followed up Sunday well after Saturday night's game. Rather than being limited from soreness that is expected, he was able to run through the entire Sunday practice. He is expected to be ready for tonight's Montana game, and will likely see his minutes increase.
- If you are keeping count, the baskets described above tell that Julius Barnes scored 10 of his 17 points when Chris Hernandez was in the game. That despite those minutes being just 6 of his 37 total ticks on the floor for the game.
- The play of the game was certainly the alley-oop play from Josh Childress to Julius Barnes in the second half. On a transition break, Childress brought the ball up the floor and gave it up when the defender committed to him. Barnes grabbed the arcing pass and slammed it home while being fouled. The 6-1 guard admitted after the game that he expected a bounce pass from Childress, and had to unexpectedly and quickly react to get up to the ball. "When I saw it up there, I figured I had better go get it or Coach would pull both of us out of the game," explained a grinning Barnes.
- St Mary's shot just 2-for-19 from outside the arc in the game, despite coming in as one of the nation's best long distance shooting teams at 49%. Neither head coach after the game felt that Stanford's defensive particularly caused that result, though Barnett did note that open looks are deceiving when the long arms of Childress, Davis or Matt Haryasz are flying at you.
- With two made treys in this game, junior Matt Lottich has now hit at least one three-point shot in each of the first six games of the season. His 15 makes from beyond the arc already beat his season totals in each of his two prior years.
- Freshman wing Dan Grunfeld had another strong night, displaying his savvy and hustle in several areas on the floor. He scored four points in 11 minutes on a three point shot and one made free throw, but what grabbed your attention was his passing and rebounding. Grunfeld played the two-man game to perfection with the pick and roll, contributing to his three assists. He also pulled down four strong boards and snagged two steals off attempted baseline entry passes.
- Tyler Besecker garned playing time in the final minute of regulation, and came through with a blocked shot for a jump ball possession. Teammates and fans responded with roaring applause.