The Stanford Cardinal came into the Galen Center on Thursday night looking to even their record in conference play and give itself a key win in the race for an at-large NCAA bid, but the USC Trojans, despite three players coming back from various ailments that sapped their energy at times, hung on to win, 70-69. Stanford's Lawrence Hill had a shot to win it in, but his fadeaway jumper from the left baseline went halfway down and rimmed out, denying the Cardinal the win and sending them to their third straight one-point loss on the road this season.
The evening did not get off to a good start for Stanford as Taj Gibson, who had been saddled with pneumonia earlier in the week, and Dwight Lewis, coming off a high ankle sprain less than two weeks ago, scored 10 of the Trojans' first 12 points to give USC an early 12-4 lead at the first media timeout. After the break, Stanford changed up their defense, going to a 2-3 zone, and went on a 7-0 run, keyed by a Mitch Johnson three-pointer. From there, the two teams battled back and forth over the next three minutes before USC went on another run, keyed by Daniel Hackett, another victim of a severe cold, outscoring Stanford 7-0 in less than a minute to take a 25-17 advantage with under eight to go in the first half. Stanford would not go down quietly, closing the gap to 29-26, using made shots by Landry Fields, Anthony Goods, and Jeremy Green to get the men from Stanford within a possession. The Cardinal, though, were not done and would close out the half on a tremendous run, outscoring USC by the same 12-4 mark the Trojans used to open the game, utilizing a Green three-pointer and a Will Paul baseline jumper to go into the half up by five, 38-33. The Cardinal seemed to be a step ahead of USC towards the end of the first 20 minutes, getting open looks and consistently beating the home team on the boards, but allowed the Trojans to hang around on the other side due to timely shooting.
At the half, Stanford was led by Johnson's 10 points on 4-6 shooting. He also had three rebounds and two assists. Fields had eight points, Hill had six, and Goods and Jeremy Green had five apiece. USC was led by Gibson, who made of five of eight shots and two free throws, totaling 12 points. Lewis was next in line with eight points, followed by Hackett with five for the Trojans.
As a team, Stanford shot a blistering 52% from the field, 50% from beyond the arc (4-8), 52% inside the three-point line, and was two-of-two from the charity stripe. USC was slightly better from the field, making 54% of their shots. The Trojans were just 1-4 from the three-point line, shot 59% from inside the arc, and was a perfect four-for-four from the free throw line. Stanford outrebounded USC by a 15-11 mark, including seven offensive rebounds which they turned into six second chance points. The Cardinal also held their own inside the paint, outscored just 16-12 inside the area. Assists and turnovers were even, at seven and five, respectively. If Stanford could hold those numbers to the same levels in the second half, Stanford stood a great chance of winning, but that was not to be when all was said and done.
At the start of the second half, Hill made two free throws to stretch the lead to seven, but it would get no bigger over the next six minutes as USC, aided by the hot shooting and general play of Leonard Washington, kept within striking distance with its continued good shooting despite not stopping Stanford on the offensive end. Unfortunately for Cardinal fans, USC would thrust itself back in the game with a good stretch of defense that set the tone for the rest of the half. After Fields hit a long three-pointer to give Stanford a 52-46 lead with 13:52 left in the game, USC went on a 15-6 run over the next 7:20, headlined by several highlight reel dunks by freshman sensation DeMar DeRozan and transfer Marcus Johnson which came off open court steals of Cardinal guards. The run was capped by two free throws by DeRozan after a questionable foul call on a fast break dunk opportunity in which Hill appeared to get all ball on an amazing shot block attempt. Regardless, the momentum was on USC's side as they took a 61-55 lead with just 6:32 left in the contest.
A 9-4 Cardinal run, keyed by a three-point play by Goods and a three-pointer by Hill, cut the lead to one, setting up a thrilling, but stressful, back-and-forth battle between the two Pac-10 squads battling in the middle of the conference standings. DeRozan and Goods traded shots, Johnson and Goods traded free throws, making the score 68-67 before Hackett penetrated the lane, shooting a jumper over Johnson with 75 ticks left on the clock and the Cardinal down by three. Stanford appeared to be in big trouble when Hill slipped and lost the ball outside of the paint, but Hackett threw a pass up the court to Washington, who was not ready for the ball. The rock hit off his hands and Stanford had new life. Stanford took advantage as Johnson found Hill on the right side of the paint, who hooked the ball in the hoop, cutting the lead to one, 70-69, with 21.7 seconds left. Fields would then foul Hackett hard up the sideline with 18.4 seconds remaining, sending the 77% free throw shooter to the line for a one-and-one opportunity. Hackett, however, missed long, but Stanford couldn't quite control the rebound initially. A scramble ensued before Goods appeared to jump on the ball as others called timeout around the senior guard. Stanford would use another timeout before having Johnson dribble up the court with 14.6 ticks left to set up the final play where Hill would have his fateful jumper nearly go in before ultimately rimming out and sending the Cardinal to another painful loss.
Individually, Stanford was led by Hill, who had 19 points on 7-11 shooting, and six rebounds. Fields finished with 18 points and a team leading eight rebounds, six of which were of the offensive variety. The combo, however, had zero assists and seven turnovers. Goods and Johnson had 13 and 10, respectively, and racked up eight assists and just three turnovers, but two of them led directly to USC dunks which turned the momentum around in the second half. For the Trojans, Gibson finished the game with a team-high 20 points on 9-12 shooting. Hackett and Washington had 12 each for USC. No Trojan had more than five rebounds, with that mark being achieved by DeRozan.
As a team, the Cardinal finished the game shooting 46% from the field, but only made 39% of their shots after the half. Stanford made 46% of their three-pointers (6-13), 45% of their two-point shots, and were 11-15 from the free throw line (73%). USC's shooting remained hot as they finished at 54% from the field, 25% from beyond the arc, 59% inside the three-point line, and made 10 of 13 free throws, finishing the evening at 77%. Surprisingly, Stanford outrebounded USC (+7 rebounding margin this season) by five, 31-26, including 14-8 on the offensive end. However, the Cardinal were only able to get 12 second chance points (to USC's 10), missing a couple of wide open looks after getting the loose ball. After keeping things close inside the paint, USC took control in the second half, getting 24 of their 37 points from near point-blank range, while limiting Stanford to just three total inside baskets in the second half. The Trojans and Cardinal both had 11 assists, but USC had just eight turnovers to Stanford's 12. USC converted those 12 turnovers into 21 points, while Stanford got nine points off the eight turnovers, including just two in the second stanza of play.
Well, if your take on the proverbial "glass" is totally full, you could say Stanford has "improved" in its three consecutive one-point losses on the road. Against Washington, Landry fumbled away an opportunity at a shot. Versus Washington State, Goods only had a prayer of a shot at the buzzer. Tonight, Stanford had a decent look at the hoop as Hill's shot came agonizingly close to falling. We can only hope that Stanford musters up the heart, fire, intensity, chutzpah, etc. to put this loss behind them as they travel to Pauley Pavilion to take on UCLA on Saturday at 12:30pm PDT (ABC Regional Broadcast) in a game they absolutely have to win to give them a realistic shot at gaining entry into the NCAA Tournament. Not only would a win versus the Bruins get Stanford to 4-5 in league play, they would finally have a marquee win on their resume, something they'll need to have if they were to finish at, say, 10-8 in conference play.
Of course, there's always the Pac-10 tournament at Staples, but if the tournament were to begin today, the Cardinal would have to win four games in four days. With the standings currently seeing nine teams within three games of the lead, the Cardinal need every win they can get their hands on before that time comes. A win at Pauley could very well propel them on a nice winning streak, but another tough loss could begin a downward spiral that would be extremely difficult to get out of before the end of the year. What will head coach Johnny Dawkins do this time around to get his troops fired up and ready for UCLA? We'll all see in just over 36 hours and this optimist hopes the Cardinal have another run of victories in them before it's too late.
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