Thankfully, Nov. 9 arrived, albeit 210 days later than preferred. It signaled the start of a new Stanford basketball campaign, and a promising one at that. Fresh off that second NIT ‘ship, returning a lot of firepower, aided by three freshmen looking to get their feet wet and a new assistant coach who knew a thing or two about playing in Maples and guarding Shaq in practice, could this be the year that the Farm Boys make it back to the Big Dance? It'd be the first trip since Kevo's junior season, when he averaged 30.7 towels and 31.2 water bottles passed out per game.
A waltz desperately needed and desired by fifth-year head coach Johnny Dawkins, the Cardinal started their 2012-13 campaign against the USF Dons, CBI participants last year and winners of 20 games in each of the last two seasons. But this was a new-look Don squad under Rex Walters, what with six guys leaving the Hilltop to transfer . Nevertheless, this team had some talent, and Green and Yellow (that's not gold) would be a good opening night challenge for Cardinal and White.
As the game tipped off, the most obsessive of us just hoped for a good shot on the first possession of the game; no turnover needed to provide a bad omen. ‘Twas a long-developing first play, but Aaron Bright found his man on the perimeter -- Josh Huestis? Yeah, that's the guy; he's developed a stroke, you know. A good way to start off the lid-lifter, as veteran SID Brian Risso would call it. Another perimeter jumper! This time, Dwight Powell would connect to even the game back up at five. My, oh my, has that kid filled out nicely. You think we might hear from him later?
It'd only take another minute or so before No. 33 was making another play for the faithful, swatting away a De'End Parker attempt as if to tell the former Bruin guard that just because you transferred out of Westwood, you won't escape the wrath of Pac-12 basketball. (That last portion of the phrase looks to have a little more bearing this year than in seasons past. By the way, if you're looking for the real reason why the Pac-12 has been so down lately, look no further than this little nugget: From 2007-2009, the Pac-12 sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament. That's three straight years with six teams in the Big Dance, or 6-6-6. Think the Most High was happy with that development? Of course the Pac-12 was punished!)
Things would come to a lull for a little bit, as the early season jitters made their presence felt for a few possessions on offense. Luckily, the usual instant offense option off the bench, Gabriel Harris, would take the lid off the rim. Wait, Gabriel Harris? Yeah, he can hit a left baseline jumper off a screen on an inbounds pass. He can also take it to the rack and finish through contact. Four points over three possessions for the ‘Bama Boy! (If only his home state Tide could've gotten it together 24 hours later, but thankfully they didn't…) Sandwiched in between those Harris makes was another three from Josh Huestis off beautiful Chasson Randle penetration. That first three was no fluke. Dude showed off the stroke against Pembroke, and it's here to stay.
Stanford was rolling now. Andy Brown displayed a little of that Chris Berman "whop!" with a behind-the-back dribble and finish over Avry Holmes. The Cardinal were locked down on the defensive end, pestering the hell out of the Don perimeters by switching everything beyond the arc. Thanks to that D and some continued production on O, the Cardinal held a traditional two-touchdown lead over the Dons, 21-7, beyond the halfway point of the first 20 minutes, just like Oregon State football over Utah a few weeks back. Apparently, Dwight Powell has been working on his perimeter J as well. This was starting to have the feeling of a blowout.
But the Cardinal couldn't pull away. The Dons would just kind of hang around for a few minutes, not really in the game, but far from out of it. Then it got legimiately close. The margin hadn't been within six since the first few minutes. Now? The Dons were getting offensive rebounds, Avry Holmes and Co. were getting wide open looks from the perimeter, Cody Doolin and Parker were doing whatever they wanted to, and the Sexy Rexies found themselves up 31-30 on the heels of a 12-0 run.
Ruh-roh. What happened to that defensive intensity? Luckily, Chasson Randle went all Chasson Randle on USF with a strong take and finish at the hoop to give Stanford the slim edge back heading into halftime, but you couldn't help but feel like the game should have been over. Instead, the Card were in for a potential dogfight.
The Farm Boys came out of that second half as if Johnny Dawkins put the fear of God in ‘em. The offense ran smoothly- a little penetrate-‘n-pitch from Bright to Anthony Brown (there he is!) for an open three. And, just like the beginning of the first half, the Dons couldn't do much on offense… besides get every offensive rebound there was to be had. A team that was so strong on the glass last year got outboarded by 16 by a mid-major school. Second- and third-chance opportunities would keep the Dons in this one.
But on this night, the ninth of November in the Lord's year of 2012, the Cardinal would not be denied a season-opening victory. A lid-lifting loss to a WCC school away from Maples this would not be, unlike three years ago on a fateful night in the Jenny Craig Pavilion against the Gamblin' Toreros. The reason for that change of fortune against a Jamie Zaninovich establishment would be simply this:
Dwight Powell was in the house on Friday night, dominating the Dons as if to say, "You can try to Occupy Oracle all you want, but I belong to the college basketball one percent and will not be denied my non-conference royalties." When it was still very close, the Toronto Titan got dirty on the low block and created two and-one opportunities, sponsored by The Bootleg's postgame wrap-ups. On the second one, the Pac-12 Networks' cameras zoomed in on No. 33, revealing the look LeBron had on his face in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals all across Powell's mug. A no-nonsense, I'm-not-here-to-play-around-I'm-here-to-bust-your-ass type of grill. And then how about a pass out of the post to an open Josh Huestis for another three from Great Falls' Finest? The guy was doing it all for the Cardinal, adding a few more highlights as the night went on to finish with seven rebounds and a career-high 27 points.
After an easy Aaron Bright layup off a Don turnover, the Cardinal found themselves up by a sizable 15-point margin thanks to a 19-5 run to start the second half. But again, the killer instinct was not there for the Dawkins gang. A Tao Xu blow-by here (where the hell did that come from, by the way), a Holmes take there, an offensive rebound or 13 thataway, and the lead whittled down to seven with about nine minutes to play. Luckily, Powell wasn't finished, as he immediately responded by beating Xu off the dribble, taking contact and finishing beautifully with a finger-roll and subsequent free throw to push the lead back up to ten. Andy Brown followed with a steal underneath the Don basket and a free throw himself en route to a career-high eight points, and the Cardinal made sure the game was never in doubt the rest of the way.
That doesn't mean it was smooth sailing, however. The Dons saw a single-digit deficit a couple of more times, but a final run never came, try as much as De'End and Avry might. (They're not a bad team despite all the changes). There were also some scary moments with Powell cramping up a few times, but let me be the first (or thirtieth, I haven't been keeping track) to note that the cramping won't become too much of a problem, in my humble-but-somewhat-experienced opinion. Landry Fields had all sorts of cramping troubles his junior year and turned out just fine. (A tip to the managers free of charge: lemon lime Gatorade with extra electrolytes -- they come in a separate sugary package -- mixed in the water bottle helped keep Landry as close to cramp-free as possible. Thank Preston Greene for that concoction. Landry's hot girlfriend sold separately.) Fields missed a couple of minutes in the 2008-‘09 opener against Yale, and cramped up more as the season wore on, but it didn't stop him from having his most productive season in Cardinal uniform up to that point by a long shot. Is this the last of Powell's cramping? Maybe not, but it won't preclude him from being the breakout player of the year in the Pac-12. You heard it here first.
There were certainly plenty of learning points to take away from this game: The Dons manhandled the Cardinal on the glass and had way too many open looks on the perimeter. Also, if Cody Doolin is able to penetrate the way he did against the Cardinal perimeters, then imagine what Pac-12 and Missouri littles might do to the Stanford defense.
At the end of the day, though, Stanford came out of Oracle with a 74-62 victory over a potentially top-half WCC squad, which, considering most power conference school's season-openers, isn't that bad of a result given the opponent.
Now it's back to Maples for officially the first time this year and a late Monday-nighter against the mighty Titans of Cal State Fullerton. Quincy Salloom probably won't be able to stay up for this one, but hopefully you will.
See ya tonight!
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