Dark Night at Maples

The table was set for the evening's disasters with the ominous and stormy weather hanging over Stanford the prior couple days. In one night, the Card faced abject embarrassment with a stunning 70-68 loss to the Montana Grizzlies, and lost point guard Chris Hernandez to injury. When it rains, it pours.

"Unfortunately we got what we deserved, based on how we played," said head coach Mike Montgomery after the debacle.

"Basically, we just didn't play any defense," lamented a crestfallen Josh Childress after the game.  "It's just desire.  That's all it takes and we didn't have that tonight."

Montgomery decried the same failings afterward.  "We didn't want to defend for 35 seconds tonight.  They ran a throw-away motion offense, moving the ball around pretty well and we defended that OK.  But they ran a lot of those before setting their staggered screens, and we just gave up.  Defense is a matter of a little bit of guts and some determination."

The primary assassin who killed the Cardinal off those screens was six-foot shooting guard David Bell, who originally hails from Oakland.  All night he darted around high screens and low screens set at the end of the possession to free him up for jump shots, which he hit in unconscious fashion.  Bell hit for eight of Montana's first 11 points, which ignited his confidence and that of the team, leading or tied all the way to the 15-minute mark of the game.  He continued his hot shooting with 6-for-7 from the field and 4-for-4 from three-point range in the first half to score 16 of the Grizzlies' 35 points.  And then he hit the final dagger with 4.3 seconds remaining in the game to turn a one-point Stanford edge into a two-point Montana lead that held for the final.

In any loss, or as I pointed out after the Xavier win, it is more important to examine how the team played rather than the final result.  Sometimes the smallest of plays or calls by officials (and they were horrific in this game) can be the difference.  But make no mistake that Stanford was completely at fault for what has to be described as their must stunning loss in several years - perhaps going back to the USF loss at the Cow Palace in 1995.  That team played ugly and flat through much the game, learning just how much they lost with the back injury to center Tim Young.  This team may have learned how thin their talent margin may be after losing Curtis Borchardt and Casey Jacobsen to the draft, not to mention the renewed foot injury on this night for sophomore point guard Chris Hernandez.

The two greatest faults in this game were defense and free throw shooting.  The former cannot be overstated, as Stanford defenders allowed Montana players to move around with far too much ease.  The Grizzlies were able to execute an uncomplicated offense backed by a bevy of lesser skilled players because Stanford let them.  But that can be fixed, as it is a matter of effort and fire, rather than inherent skill or ability.  Free throws, on the other hand, are a very scary proposition.  This team has shot poorly all year, and with a 17-for-32 performance this night, they dug a deep grave for themselves.  The front court carries most of this blame, with 3-for-7 from Rob Little, 2-for-5 from Josh Childress and 5-for-11 from Justin Davis.  Davis was the most disappointing because of how he shot; for the first time this year, his stroke at the stripe regressed, with high trajectories and an erratic release.

Montgomery estimated that Stanford gave up double digits at the line with the misses, and subsequent misses in bonus opportunities.  Childress commented that this is a problem that has been coming, but been masqueraded.  "Earlier games this season, we shot badly from the line, but then came back and hit them late.  That didn't happen tonight."

Even more discouraging is the fact that Stanford doubled up Montana on the boards, dominating the glass by a 42-22 margin.  Given how many second-chance opportunities that gave Stanford on the offensive end (18 offensive boards) and how few second chances Montana was allowed (5 offensive boards), it is incredible that Stanford lost this game.  That underscores just how porous Stanford's defense was, and how lethal the free throw shooting proved.  It didn't help that Cardinal bombers bombed out for a mere 29% performance beyond the three-point line.

Overall, the offense wasn't a core problem, though.  All five Stanford starters hit double digits in this game, which is the balance and production you want to see.  The Cardinal shot 46% from the field, and while less than ideal, that barely lagged the 47% that Montana shot on the night.

The significance of this loss is striking.  Stanford has played very well with its previous slate of six opponents, all of which possess records at or above .500 today.  In fact, reasonable projections say that all of those six opponents are likely to finish the season with winning records - and most will win their conferences and/or go to the NCAA tournament.  But Montana is frankly not a team at the caliber of any of those prior opponents.  Stanford went 5-1 against some pretty good-to-strong teams and then laid an egg against the weakest opponent they will probably play until the Pac-10 season.

The loss is also unprecedented during the last decade of Stanford basketball success.  Since Brevin Knight arrived in the fall of 1993, which started a stretch of nine straight post-season appearances and eight straight 20-win seasons with second round berths in the NCAA tournament, Stanford had not dropped a game in its own preseason Invitational.  In fact, the Card last dropped a preseason game at Maples in 1992, when Gary Trent led Ohio University to a narrow 81-76 win over the weakest Stanford squad of the last 20 years.  But Gary Trent was an elite talent who was drafted after just his junior year by the NBA as a lottery pick, just two spots behind Ed O'Bannon.  Montana does not have any players who will make even the NBA's developmental league, and the talent on that starting 1992-93 roster is approximate to or lagging what today's Stanford basketball brings off the bench.

If you take any good out of a game like this, it is the knowledge that these Stanford players have seen the depths of how low they can sink if they don't come to play.  Otherwise stated, this should scare the hell out of them, and keep them from overlooking any other opponent this year.  Indeed, even a lowly Washington State or Oregon State has at least as much danger as Montana.

"Obviously you hear 'Montana' and start to think whatever you think about an opponent like that," said Childress after the game.  "We cannot come out and play with the idea that we're a top team.  Look what happened."

In the final minutes of the game, several opportunities pres


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