Card Skin Kit Kats Again

Absent their superstars, and matched up against what has been regarded as the deepest and most talented Arizona team ever, all Stanford did Thursday night was physically handle the #1 Wildcats. Leading for all but a few minutes of the game, the visiting Card were the aggressors, and somehow fought through their worst batch of foul trouble seen in a long time...

The game started out sluggishly for both teams, as the officials took over affairs in a hurry.  But the surprise was that Stanford was able to pull down the rebounds, block the shots and grab the loose balls - winning almost every hustle play.  The opening 3-0 lead for the Wildcats quickly faded into a five-point deficit several times over.  That lead would diminish as Arizona made a small run in the middle of the half, tying the game at 17.  A 6-1 run by the Card opened the game back up to another five point lead, but the Cats answered and closed to 23-22.  But Stanford made their boldest move yet of the game when they responded with a 12-4 run, including clutch shots from Matt Haryasz and Dan Grunfeld - frosh who had played thus far their better games at home and tenuously on the road.  The game see-sawed for the remainder of the half, though Arizona made big strikes with a pair of made three-pointers in the final 75 seconds of the half.  The score stood at 41-38 in the Cardinal's favor, but the visitors knew they had yet to see one of Arizona's patented runs in the game.

Stanford started the second half with some fierce rebounding and lockdown defense, with an 18-7 run to open the half, taking a 14 point lead.  Arizona only took 10 field attempts in the first eight and a half minutes, and though they missed seven of those shots, they never pulled down a single offensive board.  Stanford on the other hand built their lead with second-chance opportunities, grabbing offensive rebounds on six of their 10 misses in that same stretch of time.

But as quickly as the lead was built, Arizona tore it down.  The Cats roared back on a ferocious 20-3 run, and they did it all in the span of just one media timeout.  In typical Arizona fashion, they launched three-point bombs to make up ground in a hurry, hitting all four treys attempted during the run, including three in consecutive possessions.  Stanford also was pressured into turnovers aplenty.

But with the eight-minute media timeout came some composure for the Cardinal, who promptly hit five straight field goals.  Maybe the biggest in that stretch was an improbable trey from Julius Barnes at the 6:32 mark.  Arizona had taken a 65-62 lead, the first time they had led by three points since they opened the game up 3-0.  Momentum was oozing from every McKale pore, and Stanford had to be disappointed to have their first look be a bricked three-point attempt from Josh Childress.  Big Rob Little extended for the offensive rebound, though, and one one foot slightly off-balance he heaved the ball back toward midcourt as Barnes charged.  The ball reached the senior point guard a little faster than he expected, and his intended catch-and-release open trey came with his momentum still carrying forward and his leg unsteady a few feet behind the arc.  But in one quick and surprising motion, he threw that ball straight through the hoop and tied the game.  That make was a shot in the arm for a backpedaling Stanford squad.  In the heat of the Arizona home pressure, the visitors had not made a bucket in over two and a half minutes and missed their previous five three-pointers.

The Barnes spark set off a fire as the Card ripped off a 10-4 run.  Though after Barnes' trey and the one to follow by Matt Lottich (in clutch shot from the left corner), the game moved on both ends of the floor inside.  Childress shot across the lane for a running jump hook inside eight feet, and then Little went to work for the next two baskets - both heavily defended.  He would score again from the free throw line after being fouled on a turnaround jumper.  On Arizona's end, Channing Frye took six straight shots for the Wildcats, though Frye missed chippies twice and was stuffed by Little once.

The game stood at 75-71 in Stanford's favor at the final media timeout, with less than three minutes to go.  Two straight baskets by Arizona (Walton and Gardner) tied it up in a hurry, though, with 1:59 to go in the contest.  Gardner could have given his team the lead with a free throw attempt to follow, but missed it hard off the back iron and Lottich ripped down the rebound.  With all the pressure on this young Stanford team in the toughest arena in the conference, the most unlikely of heroes stepped up to give Stanford it's final lead of the game.  Barnes brought the ball up the floor, defended by Gardner, while Nick Robinson set a screen at the top of the circle.  Barnes crossed over, and Robinson broke free the opposite direction and turned for the pass.  Walton was assigned to the oft-overlooked 6'6" forward, and made his usual invisible effort to defend Robinson as he turned toward the basket with the ball.  In a flash, the Stanford man was past Walton, but it was his quick explosion to the basket with his long legs that gave him an easy layup while the other Arizona defenders failed to catch him.

Gardner broke free on the other end off a screen for an open look at a three-point basket, but missed.  A melee ensued for the rebound, but it was Robinson who pulled it down in the middle of the crowd.  He through it out to Lottich as he was falling to the ground, yet another tremendous hustle play for the redshirt sophomore.  Lottich put the final nail in Arizona's on the next possession, as Stanford moved the ball around to milk the clock.  In the final seconds, no free look could be found, but Lottich bombed a shot with Stoudamire in his face with just three seconds left on the shot clock.  The 80-75 margin held in that final minute, as the Card collected a huge 82-77 win.  The victory is the third straight for Stanford at McKale, and just the third in the school's history over a #1 opponent.  This is the first time Stanford has ever knocked off the #1 team in a visiting role, though.

Julius Barnes stepped up with yet again another perfect free throw shooting night, and his 10 assists speak to how successful he was driving and dishing in the game.  Josh Childress hit a few big shots, and pulled down some clutch boards.  Justin Davis was efficient with his limited opportunities, but the famed "J's" were far from the heroes of this game.  Barnes shot a queasy 4-of-21 from the field; Childress managed only nine shots in a very high tempo game; and Davis fouled out in just eight minutes of action.  The mythical monoliths in this game, instead, were the lowly "role players" who rarely receive love from the pundits, much less from Stanford's own fanbase.  Matt Lottich, reputed by the cognoscenti to be a wasted scholarship in the year that Stanford had just one to give, led all scorers with 23 points - including 5-of-8 from behind the arc.  Rob Little, the supposedly stiff and unremarkable center, put down 13 big points and ripped down nine huge boards.  Nick Robinson, a mused mistake in this program, once again exceeded every expectation in an unending collection of big plays - only partially told by his 10 points and nine boards.  Or how about Matt Haryasz, the twig of a boy who can't play in a physical game until he gets another year or two to put on some weight?  All he did in his first homecoming to the Grand Canyon State was sink two aggressive shots in the first half and pull down four big boards, at a time when the frontcourt was laden with fouls.  This game was won as a team, and that's no cliche.  The last two victories at McKale came on the shoulders of the Collins twins (2001) and Curtis Borchardt (2002), but there was nary a hint of a superstar in this most glorious of wins...

It was impossible to watch this game and not comment on the officiating.  Fortunately for us, Stanford won and the ripping of the referees can be aired out without looking like sour grapes.  The game was called very tightly in the first half, which hurt both teams badly.  Stanford absorbed many fouls in its frontcourt, putting an incredibly thin posse of post players in a serious pickle.  Josh Childress picked up two fouls within the first three minutes.  Joe Kirchofer had two fouls in the first nine minutes, and picked up his third before the end of the half.  Rob Little also picked up three fouls in the first half.  Justin Davis entered the game at the 17:20 mark early in the first half, but left when he picked up three whistles in less than four minutes.

As has been the story throughout the last couple years of embarrassing Pac-10 officiating, "supervisor" of officials Lou Campanelli was in attendance.  His forceful instructions to his zebras about calling games tightly in the paint (purportedly so as to avoid a style of play found in the six-foul days of the Big East) are carried out with extra gusto when he sits in the stands.  For whatever reason, that comes far too often with Stanford on the floor.  Lovely Lou cast his watchful eyes over his incompetent crew Thursday night, and they responded cheerily with more chirps than an aviary.  Stanford's forwards and centers picked up a total of 14 fouls in the first half as a result of the officiating.  Fourteen.

Arizona received far less damage from the refs, with no more than two fouls on any individual in the half, and many of their second fouls coming later in the half.  The one big blow they took did come very early, when Salim Stoudamire racked up two whistles within 14 seconds of each other in the first two minutes of the game.  He had to sit much of the half, and though he did not foul out, only played 17 minutes in the game.  Players like Jason Gardner and Luke Walton can shoot daggers through opponents' hearts with their quick barrage of three-point shots, but Stoudamire is likely the most dangerous scorer on the entire roster.  And even when he garnered stretches of play in the second half, he never got on track.  The talented sophomore finished with just three points on 1-for-5 shooting, and there is no question that his quiet night was a big blow to the Kit Kats.

Where the officiating seemed to hurt Stanford more, though, came in the second half when the refs loosened up their standards for what contact to let slide.  Handchecks and body bumps were whistled immediately in the first 20 minutes, but the Arizona guards in particular got away with bloody murder as they pressured Stanford's ballhandlers in the second stanza.  A style of officiating may or may not be debated, but all a coach asks for is consistency.  When referees jump from one rubric to the next in the middle of the game, that unquestionably is where they cast themselves as failures.  And that was a sizable contribution to Arizona's mid-second half run that put them squarely back in the game...

For once this year, the other team was hit with some of Stanford's plagues.  The Cardinal have hurt themselves time and time again with woeful free throw shooting, and the team has wavered in their intensity against some lesser opponents.  Any time you hear Mike Montgomery in an interview or at his press conference, he continually hammers the idea that the guys on this team have to earn a reputation.  He genuinely believes that the lax performances seen in this year's more unsightly games come from guys who think there is some natural order by which Stanford basketball will win games, conference championships, and make tournament runs.  Though Cardinalmaniacs™ with a memory longer than eight or nine years could have told you that in a flash.

But if Arizona was a little cavalier in their mental preparation from Stanford, which allowed the Card to lead for almost the entire first three-quarters of the game, then bully for the road warriors.  Zona could have played the game tighter and then taken a sizable lead during their second half run, if not for their horrific free throw shooting (14-26), so celebrate in the streets that the other guys bricked their way to misery for once.  In fact, it helps to reinforce with the Stanford players just how much free throw shooting means in these games.  If not for the combined charity stripe makes by Julius Barnes and Matt Lottich these past two games (25-26), Stanford may have two Ls instead of a pair of Ws.  As a note, Barnes has not missed a free throw since the final minute of the Washington game.  Ironically that free throw was a key contributor to the final failing in that game, whereas Barnes' makes the last two games have been critical to the team's wins.  He has hit 20 consecutive FTs now, and 32 of his last 35 attempts.  His average has climbed from 74.4% to 82.4% in the last six games...

Stepping back for a big picture moment, for this win to have some staying power a couple things need to happen on Saturday.  Stanford needs to follow up if at all possible with a win at Arizona State.  I know, that's asking a lot to sweep these two teams on the road, but for the perception of the quality of this win to stick with the media and the nation of recruits who are keeping tabs, it would be important.  To the outsider, a loss at Arizona State would be just another game where Stanford plays "down," and mitigates public opinion of the big win.  For every Xavier and Florida, there sits Montana.  For every Oregon, there sits Washington.

One other factor that minimized the "bounce" that Stanford ought to have received from the Duck Dissection was the fact that Cal also beat Oregon the same weekend.  Observers then write off the Cardinal victory as one blip in a "bad week" for Foul Fowl, and the same will be said about this Arizona win if the Wildcats don't bounce back and handle the Bears on Saturday.  Everyone will blame Candygate for a lack of focus on the part of these Mildcat martyrs, instead of focusing on the 40 minutes of basketball that showed Stanford playing at a tempo and with a ferocity every bit that the home hosts could handle.

Stanford plays Arizona State Saturday at 2pm (PST), and the game will be televised on Fox Sports Net.

Complete game box score

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