Card Leave Vegas a Winner

With 3 losses in their last 5 games, the Stanford Cardinal and their fans were seeking some confirmation Saturday night - some assurance that the NIT wins over Xavier and Florida were no flukes. What better time to answer those questions than in the first road game of the season, where the Card upended UNLV 77-66 in fine fashion.

Stanford fans may have remained unconvinced that Stanford truly bounced back from its horrific 4th place finish in the Stanford Invitational, as purportedly evidenced with Thursday night's domination of UC Irvine. But Saturday night the Card travelled to Sin City for its first true away game of the season when the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV opened up their paramutual arms in their own home-hosted holiday festival. The Reb's were 6-1 coming into the game, including a quartet of high margin wins on their home floor at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV is long removed from their high-flying ways of the late 80's and early 90's, but with a balanced and athletic starting five looked to provide a more-than-formidable test.

The Card passed with flying colors. Starting the game like gangbusters with a 20-6 opening run in the first six minutes of the game, then holding a double-digit lead through most of the half. The game concluded likewise with Stanford holding a double-digit margin for almost the entire final nine minutes, with UNLV only briefly closing the gap to nine points in that closing stretch. But the program once known affectionately, if not reverently by man hoops fans, as the University of Basketball at Las Vegas, did make a serious run that put this game in question.

Opening up the half with a 38-28 lead, senior point guard Julius Barnes started the first possession handling the ball the entire time and eventually running around the perimeter and then driving the baseline. He picked up an offensive foul on that charge, and soon thereafter tagged on two more personal fouls. After playing the first half with just one foul, Barnes stood with four fouls before even three minutes elapsed in the second half. He had to leave the game, and freshman Jason Haas was forced to handle the point guard duties in a very hostile environment.

To make matters worse, Haas was matched up against one of the top point guards in the country, 6'2" Marcus Banks. Banks is big, strong and awfully quick - able to turn a game on either end of the floor. It looked like this future NBA guard would do just that, as he led the way for UNLV's press defense against Haas and the Card. Though the Rebels employed a trapping full court press, it was truly Banks who incited chaos with his on-ball pressure. The very first possession for Haas in the second half, he travelled when the trap collapsed on him. Banks took the ball past Haas from the top of the key with a wicked cross-over dribble for an all-too easy layup. On the next possession, UNLV pressure again forced a turnover, this time on a Haas pass to redshirt junior Justin Davis that fell short. The freshman point guard would turn the ball over a few possessions later with on-ball pressure along the sideline, which led to Banks floating jumper off the glass to tie the game at 43. Stanford was bending, if not breaking, under this pressure and on the losing end of a 15-5 run in the first 5 1/2 minutes of the half.

With Barnes on the bench, Haas in apparently over his head, and the Reb's speeding up the pace of the game to their advantage, the game looked grim. But several factors steadied the game to Stanford's favor, resulting in a 14-4 run over the next four minutes:

  • The officials started to call UNLV a little more closely on their hand checks and body contact when they pressured the ball out on the perimeter
  • Jason Haas settled down. Not only did he keep minimize turning the ball over, but he pushed the ball down the floor and created some numerical advantages that led to open shots and easy buckets for the Card.
  • As a result of the above two factors, UNLV called off most of its press.
  • Stanford hit shots, including three treys in that four minute span. Two by junior Matt Lottich (one from Haas in transition; one off a beautiful staggered screen in the middle of the key, curling back up to the top of the arc for a catch and quick release) and one from sophomore Josh Childress (off a low double screen by Matt Lottich and redshirt sophomore Nick Robinson). Justin Davis also converted to huge buckets down low, adding a free throw to make one of them a three-point play.
  • Though the Card soundly dominated the glass throughout the game, in this 14-4 run Stanford grabbed every rebound on both ends of the floor. Any Rebel miss turned to a Stanford break, and any rare Card miss resulted in a second look at the basket.

But stepping back from the details, the flow of this game reveals some very comforting behavioral patters. Stanford showed that they could play on the floor of a hostile and talented opponent, but still start the game off with a strong run. Given the Card's very forgettable opening play at home in losses to Montana and Richmond, this is encouraging. But better than forty minutes of control, it was an important test for Stanford to be in the enemy environs and absorb an opposing run. They watched their lead crumble to literally nothing, but showed the guts, determination, talent and execution to pull themselves up in a hurry. They responded magnificently, in fact.

Stepping back one level further, this team proved all game long that their fight is back. The afforementioned rebounding resolve was reflected in a final margin of 54 boards to UNLV's 27. It also showed on defense, where the Card stayed away from the gambles but played very sound defense. They applied pressure on the ball without overplaying, and collapsed on UNLV players in the paint with a lot of success. The final result was a 39% shooting performance for the Stumbling Rebels, including just 27% from behind the arc.

An important key to the rebounding result was in all honesty tied to the officiating. Stanford was able to play in the paint without the touch fouls that Pac-10 refs have whistled so maniacally this year, and that helped to keep Justin Davis and sophomore center Rob Little in the game. Davis was the big key, playing 27 minutes and only being subbed for rest rather than foul trouble. His 16 rebounds plus Little's eight boards almost equalled the Rebel team total, and Davis' eight offensive boards did match that total tally for the home team. It will be interesting to watch the Mountain West season upcoming to see if UNLV is a bad team on the glass or not, but Stanford surely did brutalize them tonight. Against a talented and succesful (read: 6-1) basketball team, this was one of the most

A couple follow-up notes on the Stanford defensive performance: 1) the Card played predominately man-to-man defense in this game, not employing their 1-1-3 zone defense until the final four minutes of the first half, and then sporadically in the second half. 2) Frankly, UNLV looked like they had no good plan to beat Stanford's zone when it was shown. That stands in contrast to some of the diagrams drawn up by a few of the other teams the Card faced this past week.

This was a team win with a lot of heros, but Justin Davis gets the lion's share of credit for his showing. He scored 17 points in that crucible of a second half, part of his career high 21 points. His 16 boards were also a career high. Undoubtedly the best game of his three year college career, it is striking that it eclipses what has been regarded by many as his previous top career game versus BYU. That game also came at the Thomas & Mack Center in the Las Vegas Showdown, and came just on the same Saturday a year ago - on December 22. If the NBA were ever to extend a franchise to Sin City and play them at the T&M, Justin Davis should be first in line to play for a living in this arena. It is also noteworthy that Davis scored in a variety of opportunities, with three midrange turnaround fade-away jumpers, five made free throws and five baskets right at the glass. A really, truly outstanding night that showcased what Davis can do at this level when he plays smart, strong and out of foul trouble.

As Davis lifted the Card with his scoring load in the second half, and rebounded throughout the game, so to do Josh Childress with his first half scoring and game-long Windex job. Childress scored 14 points in the opening stanza, a full 10 points ahead of Stanford's next best effort, and also totalled 21 points for the game. Though he did not show the strength and aggression in the offensive paint that Davis did, Childress was key in both halves of play on the defensive boards, virtually eliminating any second-chance opportunities for the Rebels. He scored inside off entry passes, drives to the basket, putbacks and a trio of three-pointers. The 21 points marks his second scoring effort in the 20's of this season and the third of his career. Childress played 35 minutes, the most of any Cardinal in the game.

And though he started off rough in the second half, a lot of credit should go to Jason Haas for steadying himself and then actually helping to reestablish the Stanford lead. He was the point guard in the game when the tie game was tranformed into the 10-point lead and eventual 16-point lead. He even found the grit to take a 16-foot jumper in transition, which went down like butta'. The freshman from Pennsylvania did something not seen from a first year Stanford point guard in a long time - turning around a dreadful performance into a leading and successful one.

The bench overall produced scarce little in the way of scoring (again), but the one substitute who came up big with baskets was Nick Robinson. He scored six points, including a nice 14-foot baseline jumper in the first half. Robinson also produced a number of plays that don't show up in the box score, like strong screens in the paint to set up perimeter shots, and a trapping defensive effort that forced Jermaine Lewis to pass the ball out of the corner and into Josh Childress for an easy basket at the rim. Robinson had to play 25 minutes, which matched his career high. And perhaps not coincidentally, the previous game with as many minutes came against Xavier, where he hit two huge three-pointers off the bench.

One overall encouraging note is that this team played at a pretty high level and led most of this game in double digits, yet they did not shoot well. 45% from the field, 37% from deep and 57% from the stripe is below what the Card need to be shooting for the season, and that makes this result pretty incredible. The lesson learned is that rebounding and defense can not just go a long way to winning a game absent a good shooting night, it can go all the way. The worst three defensive performances of this season have without question been the North Carolina, Montana and Richmond games. Which goes to show that sexy though it may not be, defense really is the key for winning Stanford basketball.

Other than the mildly disappointing shooting numbers from the field and from the free throw line, which we may as well get used to this year, the single disappointment of this game would have to be the performance and exposure from Julius Barnes. While Stanford was led by Childress in the first half and had steady performances from the rest of the roster, Barnes shot 1-for-7 and logged more turnovers than baskets. Now that Chris Hernandez is out for the season, a veritable yoke is placed on Barnes' shoulders to carry this team at the point guard position. His challenge is to figure out how to carry the team without actually trying to hard to carry the team. This game was an example where Barnes took quick shots, tried to handle the ball too much and did not play within himself. 1-for-8 total shooting for seven points, with just three assits versus five turnovers - that's a recipe for a lot of losses... especially when Stanford's inside game is negated by the return of Pac-10 zebras and their always-moist whistles.

The win also marks a milestone for Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery, the 500th in this college career.

Complete game box score

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