In pure appreciation of basketball, it was one of the most gripping games to watch all year. There were nine ties throughout the game, and no team ever led by more than six points. In the second half alone, there were 12 different lead changes as the game see-sawed back and forth. The half started at a 38-38 tie and would inch its way forward to a 55-55 tie by the midpoint of the second stanza. USC then went on a 6-1 mini-run that in a game this tight seemed like a torrential tear. That run was actually a component of an overall 13-5 run for the Trojans, during which time they killed Stanford on the boards. Three of USC's buckets during that stretch came on easy putbacks after offensive rebounds, a category where the Card got hammered all game long. USC pulled down 21 offensive boards to Stanford's 12, and won the overall rebounding battle by a 44-40 margin. This particular scoring and rebounding stretch came at a time when Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery had decided to sit both Justin Davis and Josh Childress at the same time. Their combined absence was devastating on the glass, but would be immmediately remedied upon their return. At the end of that USC run, Rob Little drew a foul and went to the free throw line but missed the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. With Childress and Davis back in the lineup, the Card pulled down three consecutive offensive boards in a span of just seconds, culminating in a rim-rocking putback dunk by Davis that sent shockwaves through the sparsely filled Los Angeles Sports Arena. That possession sparked a 17-6 run for Stanford over the final six-plus minutes of the game to close out the game, including a 10-2 run over the final 4:30.
It was a very gutty game for the Cardinal that saw them countless times battle back on the road from deficits, but also saw them step up late in a game that earlier had been frought with mistakes. With the exception of Davis (14) and Childress (12), the Cardinal were outhustled on the boards through the first three-quarters of the game; worse yet, several Stanford players would pull down rebounds only a split-second later to have them stripped away by one USC's Craven twins. Mutliple Card shooters tossed up air balls in the game as they struggled to find good shots against a patient USC defense that took a lot of time off the shot clock.
The great sign, though, of this game was the fact that Stanford's mistakes were overcome and corrected. They hammered the boards late in the game, and the shooters hit clutch shot after clutch shot. Senior point guard Julius Barnes played another game of extended minutes (37), and his repeated outside jumpers would not fall. Though he shot just 3-for-11 from three-point range, two of those bombs hit in the second half when the Card trailed by three points. His most clutch plays came midway through the second half, when Stanford needed him the most.
When USC took a 59-55 lead near the eight-minute mark, the Trojan fans in attendance for the first and only time rose to their feet and made a lot of noise. Their hoopsters were riding high on their 13-5 run that had turned a four-point Stanford lead into a four-point USC lead, and the momentum was palpably in the favor of the home team. Stanford was in dire need of a play on offense to stem the tide, and Barnes delivered brilliantly. Rather than chuck up yet another long-range shot, that by the numbers was much more likely to miss than hit, the senior point guard attacked the middle of the Trojan defense and took the ball all the way to the basket. He made contact with two SC defenders underneath, both of whom flopped in hopes of a charging foul, but Barnes got the call and went to the line for a pair of free throws. He would miss the back end, but the assertiveness and success of his play ended the brief but raucous crowd noise and moved the pendulum closer to center in the game. The Trojans would bring the lead up to five points, the largest margin of the second half, before a Davis dunk narrowed the lead to three. Then Barnes launched a clutch shot from outside the arc that complete the momentum reversal. The game was tied and would soon see the Card in the lead. Barnes totalled 16 points on the night and registed a game-high five assists.
Junior sharpshooter Matt Lottich had an up-and-down shooting game of his own, catching fire in the first half for a trio of big treys, but in the second half we went scoreless for the first 17 minutes of the period. He missed his first two shots of that final half, and spent some time on the bench as Montgomery experimented with his recently successful lineup that puts Barnes out at Lottich's shooting guard position and freshman Jason Haas at the point. Barnes did score several big points to key Stanford's comeback, but Lottich returned to the game and fired away a 25-foot mortar shell that obliterated the Trojans. It was his second make of the game from what is now termed "Casey Jacobsen range," and coming at the 3:10 mark in the game extended a slim one-point lead to four for the Card. They would lead the remainder of the game. Lottich scored all 12 of his points on three-point baskets, where he shot 4-for-8 from outside. He also extended his assist-to-turnover ratio with a 3/0 performance in the game.
The player of the game, though, was unquestionably redshirt junior Justin Davis. In a game that allowed physical play inside and saw USC outfight Stanford in many rebounding situations, it was Davis who shined the brightest and pulled down the biggest boards. Even more impressive than his 14 rebounds (and career-high tying eight offensive boards) was how he grabbed those balls. Many of them came in the thick of a crowd of USC players, with Davis outleaping every other bigman on the floor and coming down with the ball between three Trojans. The Stanford power forward would pick up four fouls in the game, but given how tough he played, it is a miracle that he pulled down so many tough balls without more over-the-back calls against him. It is just another testament to how much more mature and controlled the 21-year old has become this season.
Last Saturday's Washington State game was an exciting uptick in the return of Justin Davis, but this latest performance should end all discussion about any "return" for the athletic forward. No, Justin Davis is back and nasty as ever. He set the tone for his big night when he scored the first five points of the game for the Cardinal, but it was his second basket that brought you out of your seat. Off a Josh Childress missed three-pointer, Davis went up to rip the offensive rebound away from the awaiting arms of a pair of SC players. With the ball in the low post and his back to the basket, he leaned inside and then quickly spun for a 360° move in the opposite direction to create some space going to the basket. Davis was met with a push to the body and lunged to get under the basket for a reverse layin attempt. Falling down and tossing the ball up, he ball kissed off the glass and tickled the twine for the first two points of an old-school three-point play. An NBA caliber move, for sure.
It would be another three-point play from Davis, this one much later in the game, and proved every bit as memorable. Trailing 65-63 as the four-minute mark approached in the second half, he again attacked the basket and laid it up off the glass in an acrobatic move as he was fouled. And again Davis would hit the free throw, this time to giving Stanford the lead at 66-65. It was the biggest of plays at the biggest of moments for the Card, giving them a lead they would hold the remainder of the game, and their first lead in eight minutes. More than just a pair of spectacular three-point plays, Davis' offense was every bit as key as his rebounding, scoring a team-high 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and an incredible 6-of-7 from the free throw line.
Fellow forward and rebounding partner Josh Childress was every bit as big as Davis on the glass in this game, particularly in the first half. His 12 rebounds came in tough spots, often flying through the air from outside the paint to snag the ball away from waiting USC arms. His offensive game did not match his rebounding success on the night, shooting just 2-of-9 from the field and 1-of-4 from outside, but his six points did not stand out as a failure in the game. Though Childress had scored in double figures with almost boring regularity this year, including 19 of his last 21 games and his last five straight, his rebounding was a lift the Card could not have won without.
Lost in the big plays from Davis, Childress, Barnes and Lottich was the standout relief performance by freshman bigman Matt Haryasz. Though he has scored more and rebounded bigger numbers elsewhere this season, this USC game may have been a breakout clutch performance for the Arizona native. Both of his rebounds were athletic plays to go up and grab very tough balls, and all five of Haryasz' points came from agile maneuvers that have Cardinalmaniacs downright giddy for his future. The 6'10" frosh also recorded two big blocks that stuffed sure shots in the paint. Not only were the blocks all-conference plays, they were also a big step in the right direction for this freshman who has shown a propensity to swing at his block attempts, picking up needless fouls in the process. Haryasz was whistled for nary a foul in his 10 minutes of play, the first time he has played foul-free in double digit minutes in his young Stanford career. Really, this was a very exciting performance by Haryasz, who has yet to hit a wall in his progress this season.
Also give big credit to the defensive job Nick Robinson did on Greg Guenther in the second half. The 250-pound football player turned hoopster hit a pair of tough jump-shots late in the first half, and then another early in the second, but Robinson looked like the more physical man in their extended second half battle. Though the undersized Stanford forward gives up 50 pounds and at least two inches to Guenther, Robinson jockeyed hard with him and greatly limited the USC big man's touches. I don't know whether you could catch it on the TV broadcast, but Robinson played like a beast and amazingly held his ground against his jumbo matchup.
On the offensive end, the Stanford redshirt sophomore hit a pair of big buckets, but nothing was as meaningful as his free throw attempts in the final minute of the game. Robinson was fouled with 27 seconds left in the contest by Rory O'Neil (his fifth and final foul), with the Cardinal up just two points. Stanford was in the double bonus and would get two attempts for Robinson, and all indications were that he would need both. After all, he is the worst free throw shooter on the team at 40% and that is up only recently after an entire season spent shooting in the 20s and 30s. Robinson had no prior FT attempts in this game, but the 23-year old forward surprised by hitting both in this situation, which delivered a two-possession lead to his team at 71-67.
USC in contrast missed their last four free throws, including twice the front end of one-and-one situations. The Trojans misfired from the charity stripe to the tune of 5-for-12 in this game, while the Cardinal stroked 13-of-18. Stanford meets UCLA next on Saturday, and the Bruins are coming off a big win as they upset Cal Thursday night in overtime. It was the first win for the Bru-crew at Pauley Pavilion since mid-December, and ended their 10-game conference losing skid. Stanford of course enters the game with a five-game winning streak at the house that John Wooden built, and a four-game streak this year. The Card have yet to win five straight games at any time this season.