Stanford used to find its fate in games by the makes and misses on streaky three-point shooting nights, but this season has been a battle to keep the Cardinal's big men on the floor and productive. Stanford's Pac-10 Tournament opener versus USC proved to be one of those games on the losing end of the battle...
Rob Little had a tough start to the game with a handful of turnovers and lost rebounds. In the opening minute of the game Little received the ball deep under the basket, but shuffled his feet for a traveling call before going to the hoop. Two passes would head out of bounds off Little's hands, and he could not pull down his rebound attempts. At the first media timeout, Mike Montgomery made the move to the bench and inserted Nick Robinson for Little at the 15-minute mark. Robinson paid immediate dividends by drawing a charging foul under the basket against USC's top offensive threat, Desmon Farmer.
USC found themselves down 10-4 in a hurry after a 7-0 Stanford run and mixed things up with a three-quarters court trapping defense. They succeeded in forcing a turnover after a few possessions, and would mix up their defenses throughout the half. Though Stanford was decisively winning the early battle on the boards, led by Justin Davis, the turnovers continued to mount for the Card. That would prove a lethal failing as the game progressed.
On a more positive note, Stanford worked the offense to Justin Davis early and often. He would miss two of his early attempts, as he ducked and twisted in the paint, but he would emphatically make his statement with a putback dunk for his first points. Davis then caught a pass under the basket where the Trojans defense collapsed on him, only to watch him flash a quick pass to a cutting Dan Grunfeld, who glided for a leaping finger-roll lay-in. Davis would catch and dunk on the next possession. USC had no answer to stop the athletic forward on either end.
The answer to their prayers came faster than they could have expected, when Davis was called for his second over-the-back foul in the first nine-plus minutes. The first such call came when the Berkeley native went straight up for a rebound attempt in the first minute of the game, receiving a completely inexplicable whistle. Now with his second, Davis would go to the bench at the 10:39 mark in the half, replaced by Rob Little.
Little would prove no more effective than in his first stint in the game, and in the span of just two minutes picked up a pair of his own fouls. Next in Stanford's frontcourt rotation: Joe Kirchofer. Jason Haas would also sub into the game, for senior Julius Barnes, and quickly made his mark by aggressively driving into USC's defense. Though Haas is almost never a threat to score on his drives, he is patient in doing so until he draws extra defenders. On his first possession, he pulled the defense away from Matt Lottich on the perimeter, and the freshman guard hit his junior wingman alone behind the arc. Lottich connected for his first basket of the game on his third three-point attempt.
Stanford would open after a media timeout in their zone defense, but Farmer answered with back-to-back three pointers to give USC its first lead of the game (21-20) since 4-3. The Trojans continued their long-range assault as Roydell Smiley his a jumper from the corner, this time also drawing a foul from Julius Barnes. Smiley completed the rare four-point play, and led the game 25-20.
With Davis and Little still out of the game, Rory O'Neil went to work inside. His quickness along the baseline was too much for Kirchofer or Matt Haryasz, and O'Neil reeled off eight quick points. Six came on old-school three-point plays where he drew fouls attacking the basket and finished. USC suddenly had built a 37-28 lead, which grew in the final minutes to an 11-point lead when O'Neil again scored, this time on a tip rebound off a desperation Farmer three-point attempt to beat the shot clock.
Stanford did not score in the final 2:16 of the half, with all life gone from its offense. USC in contrast was turning it on with the one-two punch of O'Neil and Farmer, who combined for 24 first half points. The Trojans closed the half on a 12-2 run, which came on the heels of a 15-4 run minutes earlier. Again returning to the theme of turnover troubles, Stanford lost the ball 11 times in the first half, versus USC's five. The Trojans even closed the rebounding margin, with the Card holding on a slim 21-19 margin at the half. Without Davis in the game, and with USC wreaking havoc defensively against Stanford, the offense reverted to a series of outside jumpers. Too often the shots were rushed, with a meager 2-for-13 result from beyond the arc as the result. If Stanford wanted to get back in this game and take control the way they did early, the post presence had to be revived.
Surprisingly, Stanford's first attempt of the second half was a Josh Childress three-pointer, which was his first make in four attempts. On the next possession, though, Matt Lottich caught the ball on the perimeter and drove the baseline to draw the defense, then fed Justin Davis inside for a dunk. Next thing you know, the octagonal scoreboard above the Staples floor showed Stanford down just six, 39-33, after just 74 seconds of play in the half.
But the first half promised to repeat its downfall as Rob Little picked up another pair of quick fouls and went to the bench. That brought Kirchofer into the game, and Rory O'Neil immediately went to work with a midrange jumper. The lead would soon grow back to double digits, but Justin Davis answered with a big defensive rebound and a quick score on the other end. Then Kirchofer stepped up with a defensive rebound, and a nifty catch-and-shoot from five feet on the other end. Stanford was back to within five, at 40-45.
USC's offense had suddenly gone dry, with more offensive fouls than shot attempts over a three minute stretch. O'Neil tried his touch, as did Farmer, but it was Smiley who hit from outside with a three-pointer. Then SC's offense shifted toward attack mode, charging toward the basket and drawing foul after foul. The free throws mounted, and the lead grew to USC's largest of the game, 55-42. This spurt transpired while Justin Davis was sitting on the bench for a rest, also with Haas in the game for Barnes. Davis and Barnes returned at the 11:33 media timeout, though Haas stayed on the floor in one final Montgomery experiment to jump-start Barnes' offense at the shooting guard position.
The senior point guard would fire away from outside, unsuccessfully, but Stanford started attacking the offensive glass and came up with second chance attempts that finally paid off. Childress scored a three-point play with a basket plus one. Barnes soon hit a long jumper for two points, but SC continued to score from the field and the free throw line, holding a consistent 13-to-14 point lead. The Jason Haas experiment was ended as Lottich subbed back into the game.
Lottich would come up big on a steal that started a fastbreak for the Card, with the feed to Julius Barnes and a leaping lay-in finish. That came on the heels of an acrobatic driving finish by Josh Childress, on another fastbreak where Lottich assisted. The lead was cut to seven points, 64-57, the first time under double digits in more than five minutes. SC continued to get to the free throw line and convert, though three-point bombs from Barnes and Lottich would twice cut the lead down to six points. After yet another pair of Trojan free throws, Stanford went back to the well as Childress hit a trey from the corner to slash the margin to five.
At the 3:06 mark, Stanford finally got back to the free throw line, where Matt Lottich hit his first attempt but missed the second. Justin Davis ripped down a huge offensive board and whipped the ball out to an open Lottich at the top of the key. The sharpshooting junior lifted, released and drained the three-pointer that brought the lead down to two, 71-73. Stanford had chances after an awful Desmon Farmer turnover to tie or take the lead, but Davis was called for another phantom over-the-back call, which fouled him out the game. SC hit one more free throw to extend the lead to three, and the zebras struck again when they called Childress for a charging foul on a driving shot in the lane.
Time was ticking away, and the Trojans held the ball all the way to the buzzer before O'Neil hosted a shot from the corner in the final second of the shot clock, which hit and brought the USC contingent leaping to their feet. But just seconds later, Matt Lottich hit a trey of his own, to bring the game back to three points. Stanford called a timeout with just over a minute to play. They needed a defensive stop to have a shot to tie the game, and they got it when Errick Craven missed a driving lay-up. But Lottich's quick three-point attempt missed on the other end, and Kirchofer picked up a foul on the rebound.
Craven went to the free throw line and missed both atttempts, keeping the Card within one shot of the tie. Childress missed long from the corner, and a Robinson attempted putback went high off the glass. Stanford lost the rebound and was again forced to foul, and Craven again missed from the line, though he hit the important second attempt, making it a two-possession game. Barnes hoisted a three-point attempt from the top of the key that missed, and USC again grabbed the rebound. Stanford fouled with 1.5 seconds left, and one more Trojan free throw would reach the final score, 79-74.
Those free throws were the difference in the game for USC according to Bibby, as his Trojans went to the line 33 times to Stanford's 18. "The big difference was the free throws," the USC head man opined. "We got to the free throw line; we crashed the boards. We got the ball inside and got the easy attempts at the basket."
But Montgomery had a more global opinion of how that statistic was emblematic of a gamewide failing. "USC played better than we did; they competed better than we did. They were clearly the aggressor. We played hard in the first five minutes and hard in the last ten minutes, but somewhere in the middle we just lost sight of what we were trying to do. We have to play forty minutes - we have to be engaged mentally. We lost our defensive intensity and we can't play like that."
There clearly was a flatness to Stanford's play during the middle of the game, as Montgomery described, but the minutes Justin Davis spent on the bench really hurt the Card's ability to physically dominate inside and remain aggressive. "We tried to take advantage of our size, and Justin and Rob need to be on the floor to do that," the disappointed coach allowed. "They got a pair of fouls each early and so we lost them. At that point our tactics shifted to the perimeter, and we weren't making shots from there. We need to have the inside game against the zone, and when we lost those two guys it hurt us."
But the malaise Stanford suffered through during the painful middle of this game was more than just size and aggression - the offense was failing to get shots off, instead turning the ball over in too many unforced situations. The senior Barnes had six turnovers in the game and took all the responsibility on his shoulders. "It started with me," he admitted. "I made probably four turnovers in a row or something like that. When you make turnovers, you can't get your shot up and that hurts. That's pretty much it. I mean, it's my job as a point guard to take care of the ball and I wasn't able to do that." Worse still, Barnes owned up to the fact that USC's trapping defense was not the primary culprit. "It wasn't really the pressure that affected us - it was the sloppy play on my part."
Though this team came out fired up for the first few minutes of the game, they played as if in a funk until that late awakening, which came a moment too late. "We're a team that thrives off energy," explained Matt Lottich afterward. "When we come out flat, we're not very good. In the [NCAA] Tournament, we're going to have to come ready to play, or else we are going to be one and done - back home and wondering what happened."
I couldn't have said it better, but at least the guys on the team recognize why they can lose games like this. Because regardless of a 4 or 5 seeding, and regardless of which pod and geography Stanford receives on Sunday, they can go out in the first round against any number of 12 or 13 seeds when they lose their fire. The team has a mantra, which Montgomery calls "Fight. Scratch. Claw." It is the core of their success this year, especially with so many winning efforts in so many tight games. Their fortunes in the NCAA's, and the duration of this season, will depend on how vigorously they embrace this tenet.
Notes: Stanford shot 7-of-30 from behind the arc in this game, with Barnes, Lottich and Childress tossing up 29 shots from deep. That's not an offense... Davis has just about reached his boiling point with Pac-10 officials, and after the game commented how much he'll enjoy the NCAA Tournament's variegated officiating. Still, in his 27 minutes of herky-jerky limited action, the redshirt junior hit for 15 points and pulled down 11 boards, including six on the offensive end. The game may be a loss, but it was the first sign of vibrant life in Davis in several games... The unsung hero on the boards was Robinson, who filled in for the foul-prone frontcourt throughout the game. Nick has 10 boards on the game, including a game-high seven offensive rebounds... Barnes twice had the chance to shoot technical free throws, and twice made just one of the pair... Childress was down about missing that late corner trey that would have tied the game, but had a good perspective on it: "We shouldn't have been in that situation in the first place."