So you're looking at the score from Saturday's 72-54 win over Washington State and trying to get excited. As this season goes, that's a pretty big win, though. The 18-point margin is the second best of the conference season for the Cardinal this year, and it comes against a deceptively dangerous team that took Stanford to a scary overtime one month ago, almost to the day. The days of 50-point blowouts we saw a few years ago are not likely to be duplicated with this year's squad, but with a 19-6 record against a top 10 schedule and a burden of injuries and departures that was supposed to crush this team into mediocrity, get excited with Saturday's result. It's a handy win against a gutty team. And most importantly, it was how Stanford won this game that stands out.
The last two wins for the Card came on the shoulders of senior point guard Julius Barnes, who had cleared 60 points in the combined victories. His sharpshooting ways lifted the team when they were greatly threatened in both affairs, though not much else really inspired confidence from those games. And as Barnes has shown in this season, his shot will not always be there. Saturday it most certainly abandoned the fearless gunner, who hit a mere two of his 12 attempts from the field, including an O-fer day from behind the arc (0-of-5). As a team Stanford couldn't buy a bucket from deep, either, hitting only two all game and one of those was a bank shot in the final minute of play. The Card has shot under 30% from three-point range many a time this year, but never below 22% before Saturday's throat-gripping 12.5% result. Given that Washington State shot twice as well from that range and rebounded right with Stanford through most of the game, it could have been a quagmire. N'est-ce pas?
The difference maker in this game, though, was that Stanford had Justin Davis. And I'm not talking about physically having the 6'8" forward phenom on the floor. The Justin Davis who played in the Washington State game was the first appearance of the real Davis seen since the Cal game on January 4, when he went down with his MCL sprain. It is true that the redshirt junior had made very positive signs of improvement in each of his past two or three games, but a big catalyst for Davis' 21-point and 10-rebound performance Saturday was the starting nod. In his first start in seven weeks, Davis played aggressively on offense, tenaciously on the boards, and intelligently enough to stay out of foul trouble. Davis had averaged 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes this season prior to this week, but in a combined 47 minutes in the two Washington games he picked up just three total fouls.
That helped to keep Davis in the flow of the game, which saw him actively working in the paint to receive the ball, and then attempting every move in his arsenal to take any defender in the post. His signature move, which worked to perfection in this game, is to hold pivot foot while lunging away from the basket with his other foot. The defender will bite and rotate his body to seal Davis off, at which point, Davis utilizes his standout quickness and length to snap back toward the basket. There is the potential for offensive fouls on these plays, most often hooking with the inside arm, but Davis instead got good looks each and every time. He still has to muscle up and make a leap to the basket (or under the basket for a reverse) to finish, but by this time it is a high percentage play that will almost assuredly put the ball in the basket or Davis at the free throw line. A balance of both against the Cougars, Davis hit for seven field goals and seven free throws, including two old-school three point plays. He hit 70% from the field and 78% from the stripe in the game. Wow.
"Justin was just huge in this game," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "We thought our advantage would be inside in this game because they really work their perimeter athletes to hurt you out there. But Justin responded well, and I think Rob [Little] would have as well if not for his foul trouble. Rob has just been the recipient of some tough calls against him lately. But Justin really took it at [Washington State] in the game."
Barnes said after the game, "I don't care that my shots didn't go in today. It's huge that Justin is back and playing so well, and Josh was right there, too. I didn't lose any of my confidence, and it only helps us to have those guys going inside." Very similar comments of relief and excitement were repeated from every player on the squad afterward. There is very genuine electricity popping now that Davis is returning to form. "This is as good as I've felt in a long time," he states. Though he adds that he is "not yet 100%" with his game at this point. Even better.
A very fair question is to how the reclaimed starting role of Justin Davis might negatively impact that top performances that Stanford has received for more than a month now from redshirt sophomore forward Nick Robinson. Though he is in every way the epitome of a selfless team player, there are almost always rocky roads encountered as players struggle with "demotions" to the bench. His mental and emotional well-being is not a likely problem, but as an athlete he will have to now come off the bench cold. And that can be a problem for most players.
Montgomery thinks it could work better for Robinson than most, though. "It makes sense," the coach opined. "Nick has actually been best late in games for us, once he figures out what can work and doesn't work. But Justin had to earn his spot back, and I thought the last two games he had forgotten about the knee and started to really play like himself again."
Robinson indeed did deliver in this game, though he played his fewest minutes (21) in any game since the Cal game when he last came off the bench. The Missouri man put up eight points in an efficient afternoon of 4-of-6 shooting, but his passing stole the show. He recorded three official assists, including a key feed to Justin Davis late in the first half that gave Stanford a 22-21 lead they never again relinquished. For whatever reason, Robinson sees the passing lanes so very well when he stands 15-20 feet from the basket, and the coaches have drawn up plays to take great advantage.
The other frontcourt star was Josh Childress, who is eerily consistent with his near-double-double performances. He hit for 15 points in this game, his fifth straight game in double figures and 19th in his last 21. The sophomore was a leading force when this game was being stretched out to the 20-point margin, hitting for 11 first half points and pulling down five rebounds. With Davis back on the floor, Childress will likely see a little drop-off in his rebound numbers, but there was nothing lacking in his scoring assertiveness. He dunked the ball baseline and from the top, hit the fadeaway jumper, and the leaning/spinning/360/unstoppable midrange floater.
In a game where Stanford led much of the second half by 20 points, there was room for a lot of fun and excitement, and the Card delivered in this game. Davis had one putback dunk that lit up the crowd, though it was Childress who brought Maples leaping to its feet with an aerial display in the second half. Near the 16-minute mark, he ran on the break off a Cougar miss and Stanford rebound, with Barnes pushing up the floor. A 20-foot bounce pass found Childress slashing to the basket, though Cedrick Hughey had an angle to contest. So Childress left his feet early and arched his body in the air. In a thunderous and surprising fashion, the super sophomore threw down an explosive one-handed jam that to many observers was one of the best in recent years in Maples.
In the waning minutes of play, three beloved members of the Stanford roster reached the floor. Redshirt junior walk-on Tyler Besecker entered first and hoisted a three-pointer that missed off the back iron. But he later would attack the basket for a lay-in attempt that was fouled. He hit his pair of free throws, but had something else in mind with the ball. "I was coming in for a dunk, but realized I couldn't get up there once I left my feet and the defender was on top of me, so I just threw it up for a prayer," the Washington native explained afterward. He additionally ripped down a pair of rebounds. Senior Tunde Sobomehin came next along with freshman Carlton Weatherby, bother smaller walk-on guards, and both took their shots. Sobomehin charged the hoop and left his feet into a pair of outstretched Cougar defenders, tossing a meek attempt a couple feet into the air, but grabbed an offensive rebound in the paint that drew huge applause from the crowd as they smelled a basket opportunity. Weatherby chucked up a long three-pointer that banked in hard off the glass, to surprised but loud applause, in the final minute of play. Weatherby stared at the basket and hung his head to the side with a grin on his face. "I called my bank, but you probably couldn't hear it with all the crowd noise," he smiled after the game. "Nah, I didn't call it, but it was fun. It felt great, but I'm just glad we're playing well enough to be in these positions. It's good to get these guys a little rest." Very wise, Carlton. Indeed, no Stanford player broke 30 minutes in the game, which is very helpful at this late and grinding point in the season.
In attendance at the game was a pair of top junior recruits. Cupertino's 7'1" Robert Rothbart has become a staple at Maples with his mother, and said he had a lot of fun watching this game. The Monte Vista High School junior says he is averaging 26 points, 17 board and six blocks per game, while also working his tail off on his grades. From a greater distance came junior small forward Kyle Brucculeri of Los Alamitos, who took an unofficial visit Saturday to Stanford with his mom and dad. We will try to catch up with Kyle soon to get the latest from him.