In a game of runs, though few in number and meager in magnitude, the Cardinal finally held court at Maples against the UCLA Bruins, when they pulled out a narrow 52-51 victory Thursday night. Stanford led most of the first half, by as much as nine points at one time and by six points five different times, but the home team hit just one bucket in the final three minutes as the visiting Bruins stormed back to tie the game at 29. In the second half, UCLA continued their momentum with two quick baskets for a five-point lead, capping off a 9-0 run they made spanning the two halves. Stanford answered with their own 12-2 run over the next five minutes, with Julius Barnes and Rob Little scoring eight of those points toward the 41-36 advantage. The lead would grow to eight at 48-40, and then hold at seven at 51-44 with less than six minutes remaining in the game.
Then Stanford went cold, with zero field goals in the final 6:38 of the game and just one free throw made by Josh Childress. Meanwhile, UCLA took advantage of the Cardinal's misses, converting quickly in transition. They scored five of their seven points in those trailing minutes inside the first 10 seconds of the possession, and four of those points in the first five seconds of the possession.
With the score now just 52-51 in Stanford's favor, their smallest lead of the half since the first TV timeout, the Card had the ball and 45.3 seconds left in the game. No sense in taking the very last shot possible on the 35 second shot clock - much more important to get a good shot to extend the lead. Even if you can run the whole clock down, 10 seconds is plenty long to get a good look or two at the basket. Stanford inbounded against a fullcourt UCLA trapping defense, which forced a Childress timeout with 40.3 seconds to go. Stanford got the ball across halfcourt, where UCLA set up a straight man defense. The Card ran a motion offense, and let Childress drive the right side of the floor while Stanford's other players drew the UCLA defense to the opposite side. Rob Little sealed off T.J. Cummings in the paint, but Childress' defender, Dijon Thompson, did a great job sticking on him. Childress drove the baseline from right to left and took off for a reverse lay-up. The play is one the sophomore has hit inumerable times for Stanford this year, but the tight defense forced him to leave his feet a little early and not get far enough on the opposite side of the basket. The ball did not clear the rim and came off into the arms of Jason Kapono. He promptly called a timeout to give UCLA a chance to win the game, down by just one with 13.0 seconds left in the game.
Bruin head coach Steve Lavin later explained that the design for UCLA's last play was to let sophomore point guard Cedric Bozeman attack his defender while two pairs of Bruin players hung out in the opposite corners of the floor. High chance to get a good shot or draw contact for a foul. If any defender collapsed to help, charging UCLA players would be available as outlets for Bozeman. The play worked almost precisely as designed. Barnes was defending Bozeman, but for fear of fouling let the Bruin ballhandler let him drive deep into the lane. Cummings was hanging out close enough to the basket that Little was in position guarding him. Little stepped over, which as planned allowed Bozeman to dish the ball under the Stanford big man's outstretched arms to an open Cummings just outside the lane. He charge the basket but with Little quickly rotating back, he went for the reverse lay-up and missed it.
After the game, Little discussed his defense on the play. "I pretty much knew it was coming," he professed. "And I probably fouled him, but the refs aren't going to call that in that situation."
All of this took less than seven seconds, allowing UCLA ample time to grab the loose ball rebound. Cummings came up with it deep in the corner with more than three seconds in the game and made the one big mistake for the Bruins. His sense of panic, albeit understandable, led him to toss it in desperation to a closely guarded Kapono, who threw up a hurried three-point attempt that barely grazed the rim. There was plenty of time to call a timeout and get another good shot setup.
Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery discussed the defensive strategy after the game when asked if he though Kapono would take the last shot: "You can't just single in on one guy like that, and we thought it would have to be point of attack - take it right at you and draw the foul. That's very tough for us to defend. We could have maybe zoned and tried to trap."
UCLA displayed in this game the woeful offensive troubles that have plagued them throughout this year, taking poor shots and hitting at a low percentage. But Stanford, for all its leads throughout the game, was not firing on all cylinders either. Against most, if not all, other Pac-10 opponents, the Cardinal's offensive output would have lost this game. Indeed, Stanford would have been trailing by 8-10 points by the middle of the first half rather than clinging to a 12-9 lead. But it was the offensive misery in those final six minutes that turned what could have been a safe margin of victory into a nailbiting affair.
"It was a combination of rushing shots and they're not falling," explained a frustrated by relieved Barnes after the game. "We definitely rushed at the end."
A couple of the shots were rushed, but a couple were also good looks that just didn't go down. Barnes hit this squarely on the head.
The senior Stanford point guard also had some opinionated commentary about UCLA's offensive tactic in the game. "It wasn't the style I had hoped it would be," in reference to the Bruin throwaway motion offense. UCLA had taken the last three victories at Maples by greatly accelerating the pace of play on both ends of the floor, so it came as a huge surprise to the Stanford players and coaching staff Thursday night that the Bruins played what has classically been an Oregon State tactic in recent years at Maples.
Let that sink in for a moment. UCLA played a slowdown motion offense with the intent of shortening a game so they could steal a tight win against Stanford. That is one of the most surreal college basketball observations I can imagine.
But give Steve Lavin a load of credit. I have been one of his most ruthless critics over the years, but he was right. He put his downtrodden team with zero big wins under its belt into a position to win at Maples. If Cummings hits that shot, I think I would be hailing his strategy in this game as the best in at least a year for him at UCLA. And in fairness, the strategy should not be accountable to a single shot, so I think you still have to give Lavin a load of credit. It did work.