That's what turning the corner looks like.
Stanford enjoyed its best performance of not only the season but of the entire Johnny Dawkins era Saturday afternoon at Maples Pavilion, turning in a sustained and focused effort on both ends of the court en route to defeating No. 23 UCLA 83-74. The win moves the Cardinal (18-8, 9-5) into a tie with California for third place in the PAC-12 and, more importantly, with just four regular season games to go, into "all-but-in-barring-an-absolute-meltdown" territory in regards to its NCAA Tournament bubble status.
The win caps off a make-or-break month-long stretch for Stanford, one that has seen it transform from a defensively challenged, mentally fragile bunch lacking direction from both its veteran leaders and the sideline into a tough, poised, and mature squad peaking, as those dangerous and teams seemingly do year in and year out, in that final calm of February's waning days before the storming magic of March.
Indeed, heading into the final two weekends of the season, then, the Cardinal has not merely positioned itself on the safe side of the bubble but has afforded itself the luxury of playing for seeding down the stretch. In that regard, the schedule plays out favorably, with opportunities for quality wins looming at both the Arizona schools and at home against Colorado.
Improvement: From the Coach to the Senior Core
To zoom out for a moment, it really is quite amazing to think of how far the team has come since its 91-74 trouncing in Westwood on January 23. Facing its biggest test of the season to date, the Cardinal was flat out embarrassed by the Bruins in that contest, losing handily and seeming quite disinterested in doing so. Stanford was punked by a UCLA team hardly lauded for its physical—or, frankly, even mental—toughness, looking all the part of a side prime for one of its patented late-season free falls. We haven't spoken of it much in explicit terms here, but that loss and what it signified (the lack of improvement from November, a crippling lack of urgency, a long-standing inability to compete with any team that played defense, that pervading aura that Stanford no longer believed it could or should or deserved to win a big game) seemed to bring with it the beginning of the final chapter of the Johnny Dawkins saga. Indeed, you felt for the seniors—not to say they were without blame—but probably thought it best to wipe the slate clean and start anew.
You have to give credit to Stanford's veteran core—to Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell, Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown, and Stefan Nastic—for the resiliency it's shown in this, its final hoorah, but it's also time to throw the Cardinal's much maligned coach a bone as well. For, frankly, he too has improved as the season has worn on. He's gotten this group to finally buy in to his defensive principles (the extended, active 2-3 zone Stanford flashed Saturday against the Bruins was light years ahead of what they "played" in the first meeting) and has them working effectively inside-out on the offensive end, in the process actually establishing a team identity for the first time in his six years at the helm. Indeed, Stanford has not caught lightning in a bottle; the Cardinal is improving as a group game by game. A month doesn't completely erase five and a half years of mediocrity, but it must be said that Dawkins has done his best job leading when he has absolutely had to.
A Drastic Difference
All this is to say that Saturday's game was a complete 180 from the first time these two teams met. This time around, it was the Bruins who came out sloppy and uninterested, and the Cardinal that asserted itself as the aggressor from the tip. Indeed, for a team that was quietly putting together a run at both a Pac-12 title and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Bruins were bizarrely flat for much of the first half, turning in an especially unenthusiastic performance on the defensive end. The Bruins were quite lazy in their zone defense and particularly undisciplined when Stanford worked the ball inside in the early going. Almost any entrance pass to Nastic elicited a wild double team and complete collapse to the ball by the Bruins, resulting in numerous Stanford shooters running free around the perimeter. Credit to Nastic and the other Stanford bigs for staying patient and finding the unmarked Stanford guards, Randle in particular, who nailed four triples in the first 20 minutes—almost all of them on wide open looks. Randle, in fact, shot it superbly all afternoon, finishing with seven threes and 26 points overall in quite the bounce-back game after going just 3-16 from the field the last time these two teams played.
The difference in intensity level really came to the forefront during what turned out to be the game's decisive stretch about midway through the first half. With the score tied at 18 (thanks in large part to some Stanford turnovers) at the 10 minute mark, Stanford went to its bench for the first time, trotting out a lineup that we're not sure has seen much—if any—time together this season. Yet nonetheless reserves Grant Verhoeven, Robbie Lemons, and Marcus Allen, paired with starters Randle and Huestis to spark a 10-0 run that essentially broke the game open (UCLA was never closer than 3 going forward). The key to the spurt was -- no surprise -- the group's play on the defensive end. Stanford effectively mixed zone and man looks for the three-minute stretch, keeping the Bruins off balance and forcing them into some difficult looks. On the offensive end, the bench made some key contributions. Verhoeven had a nice pin down that freed up Randle for a wide open three and also chipped in an offensive rebound, Allen converted on an acrobatic layup with the shot clock expiring, and Lemons buried a three in the corner to force Steve Alford's hand into calling a timeout as the Cardinal opened up a 28-18 lead.
We alluded to it above, but the Stanford zone finally showed signs of being a defense capable of stringing together some stops against the Bruins. Whereas in the past the zone has inspired thoughts of "rest" and, hence, extended stretches of lackadaisical play, a recent adjustment by the staff to extend the defense and give it more of a pure match-up—and often one-man front—look has done wonders for the zone's activity level. On Saturday—during the 10-0 run in particular—Stanford defenders looked much more aware of their assignments while playing zone, the result being much fewer Bruin shooters running unmarked. Moreover, the clarity the matchup principles brings to the zone gives the defense a more aggressive look, with players communicating and acting decisively as opposed to being unsure of not only where the shooters and cutters are but where they themselves are supposed to be.
The intensity level and focus also carried over to Stanford's man-to-man defense. Cardinal defenders did an excellent job talking through screens during the spurt. We've singled him out before, but it bears mentioning once more that Lemons is an excellent assignment defender. He doesn't provide much in terms of offensive production, but his play on the defensive end and his attention to detail—his checking cutters, his extra second of help on screens to let his teammate recover, his fronting of the high post in the zone—are seemingly contagious on the court. It really is no surprise that Stanford has had some of its best stretches defensively with Lemons on the court.
That the decisive run in the game was spurred on by defense is certainly noteworthy but of added importance is that it came thanks to the play of the bench. It's no secret that Stanford is not a particularly deep team. In fact, despite the inspired reserve play on Saturday, Brown, Randle, Huestis, and Powell all still played more than 35 minutes against the Bruins. If there was a complaint about Saturday afternoon, it's probably that one would have wanted to get the bench more second half minutes in such a high-level game. Despite their solid play, both Allen and Verhoeven finished with just seven and four minutes, respectively. Allen, in fact, did not play in the second half at all. John Gage also never factored in much, finishing with just 4 minutes himself. As one looks toward postseason play, depth will undoubtedly prove crucial and with this Stanford team, there is always the pervading sense that it's one starter in foul trouble away from the wheels falling off.
Execution Down the Stretch
If the first half boiled down to a difference in intensity and one key Stanford run, the story of the second was that of the Cardinal taking the Bruins' best shots and responding with several backbreaking blows at critical junctures. The most threatening of those UCLA runs came at the midpoint of the second half, when thanks to Stanford struggles against UCLA pressure and Tony Parker turning into an all-conference player as he only does against the Cardinal, the Bruins cut a 12 point Stanford lead to just two. With the strong Bruin contingent alive and well in the Maples stands and his team sped up and out of sorts, Dawkins called timeout to regroup. There was a creeping sense that this was where the Card would fold: This, it seemed, was the UCLA team that had built one of the best resumes out West and this was the Stanford team that had underachieved for the past six years. The setup was perfect for yet another deflating loss, the type Stanford has suffered so often whenever the larger public has cared to notice the past half-decade.
I jotted down a note during the break: how will they respond?
Well, the Cardinal responded by deciding that enough was enough, by finally getting to the end of the block and turning the proverbial corner.
Brown knocked down a huge contested three late in the shot clock the first possession out and Randle followed with one of his own off a Verhoeven offensive rebound. Brown later added another jumper to cap a mini 8-0 run, and it was clear that Stanford had retaken control of the pace of play, had re-imposed its will on the game. It was as impressive a stretch as the Cardinal has had all season in terms of performance in a big moment, and, frankly, all you need to know about how far this team has come not only this season, but this past month as far as mental fortitude and resiliency are concerned.
We haven't talked much about Josh Huestis thus far, but his play seems like as good a place as any to end our review. The senior forward had one of the best games of his career, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds, and five blocks. He was extremely active and efficient around the rim, and along with Brown did a nice job defending Kyle Anderson. His breakaway dunk in the game's closing moments served as the exclamation point for the biggest win of not only the season but of his entire Stanford career. Seeing him and Powell, the two faces of the senior class, huddled after Huestis had blocked Anderson's three-point attempt moments later was a fitting close to a special afternoon in Maples.
One couldn't help but feel happy for this senior class in that moment, for what they'd been through, for how far they've come, for the leadership roles they've grown into. And to that end, with the Cardinal having capped its make or break month with a 6-2 record and three quality wins, one couldn't help in that very moment but feel happy about the state of Stanford Basketball. Think of when the last time was you muttered those words.
Take your time; it's been a while.
Indeed, there was some magic in Maples again on Saturday, and with Stanford having created some NCAA Tournament breathing room heading into the Desert next week, it's time to start wondering if there might not be some magic in March on the horizon after all.
Who would've thunk it a month ago?
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