Road Card Survive ASU Surge

Hernandez scraps for win

We warned you, didn't we? With a nation looking toward Saturday's showdown with #3 Arizona, little attention was given to tonight's Stanford game at Arizona State. But the Sun Devils summoned inspiring scoring for a second half run that nearly sunk the #4 team in America. At the end, it was a bench player for the Cardinal who grabbed a big rebound and put it back in the hole... an All-American play, we think.

Both teams were off to stuttering starts, though Justin Davis was running the floor and scoring quick buckets to help Stanford early with six points. But Arizona State was the first to pick up some offense with a few tough shots and grabbed a four-point lead. Down 13-17 (Stanford had never trailed in their first two conference games), Josh Childress entered the game at the 12-minute mark of the first half and promptly made his mark felt. Matt Lottich missed a corner trey, but Childress leapt up to grab the offensive board and jammed it in the same jump. Not a bad "hello" message to the Wells Fargo Arena crowd less than 10 seconds into the game for the Stanford junior.

The next possession, Jason Haas and Childress got out on the break after a defensive stop, with the point guard pushing the ball up the floor with a pass to the forward. Only one defender separated Childress from the basket, and a quick move circled right around the befuddled Sun Devil, followed by a single dribble and then a flush by the 6'8" preseason All-American.

With the game tied, Stanford again made a defensive stop and pushed the ball in transition. The Sun Devil defense clogged the middle as they retreated, so Haas fired a pass out to a wide-open Lottich in the corner for a three-pointer. Suddenly Stanford was back in the lead, 20-17. The Card were killing ASU all of a sudden on the break, but the next possession presented the visitors with a half-court set after a Sun Devil traveling turnover. Haas dribbled the ball 30 feet from the basket while his four teammates all came out to the free throw line, which cleared the backside of the defense. Haas tossed a lob pass over the defense, which a breaking Childress caught under the basket. One head and shoulder fake pulled the collapsing ASU defender into the air, after which the Cardinal junior went up and laid it off the glass.

Much like the early start of his forward teammate, Childress had a quick six points - coming in two and a half minutes of play. Stanford led 22-17. Though they missed their next several attemps, including a pair of Childress treys and some inside looks, the run reached 11-0 when Matt Haryasz dribbled in traffic and gave a nifty fake to create a leaning lay-in. ASU finally got back on the board after an offensive rebound of a Haryasz block, but Childress knocked down an 18-foot pull-up jumper for a quick response. Stanford was not shooting exceptionally well, but they were controlling the boards and getting more looks. Even 6'5" Dan Grunfeld found a basket with a tough offensive rebound and putback.

Rob Evans saw the game slipping away and had to call a timeout to get his offense back on track and refocus his rebounders. Stanford answered on the defensive end with their first zone look in the 13th minute of the game. ASU came up empty, and after the next timeout, Mike Montgomery went back to his base man defense. On the other end, Stanford extended its lead with a long Lottich deuce (feet on the line). At 30-19, the game was taking shape and the home crowd was quiet.

The offense kept firing for the Cardinal in serendipidous fashion, as even loose balls became big buckets. An errant offensive move by Justin Davis sent a ball toward the ASU bench before Nick Robinson raced over to save it (completely typical of the plays he makes that don't show in the box score). Robinson had a trapping double-team collapse on him on the sideline, but he split the defenders and passed the ball to an open Chris Hernandez. The 57+% three-point shooter smoothly stroked the open jumper and pushed the lead to 14. The Cardinal defense again made a stop on the other end, with a Robinson steal that started a 4-on-3 fastbreak ending in a Matt Lottich lay-up.

The score stood at 35-19 with under four minutes to play in the half, and Stanford looked every bit the #4 team in the country. Rebounding, offense, defense - it was all good. Then the Sun Devils found a small crack in the dam when they hit an open three-pointer against a Stanford zone defense. That was their first score in four full minutes, though Stanford answered with a back-door alley-oop from Lottich to Davis. Unfortunately that score with 3:10 to go in the half was the last for the Cardinal. ASU added a few points on free throws to cut the margin down to 13. They trailed 37-24 at the half, which looked like a large hill to climb, but their bleeding had stopped on both ends of the floor and would pave the way for a hot second half start.

The home Sun Devils had shot a fair but not poor 33% in the first half from outside (identical to the Cardinal), but it was a suddenly red-hot barrage of three-point shooting that pulled them up by their bootstraps in the second half. ASU would hit 6-of-7 from deep in the second stanza, while Stanford would shoot 2-of-8 from behind the arc. The home team also remedied their rebounding woes, reversing a first half deficit of nine boards into a second half six-board advantage.

The two teams traded early baskets and free throws to start the second half before a couple possessions swung the momentum squarely in the Sun Devils' corner. They hit their first three-pointer of the half in the third minute to close the margin to 10 points, at 42-32, and then when Stanford raced down the floor in transition and an impending Nick Robinson dunk, Ike Diogu stuffed the Stanford wing to initiate their own break. Their first shot was a missed three-pointer, but ASU grabbed the loose offensive rebound and hit a short jumper to bring the deficit to single-digits.

The failings of the first half were all forgotten for the now rocking Sun Devil crowd, and Rob Evans directed more full-court ball pressure for his guards to try and further disrupt the Stanford offense that had operated so smoothly in the first half.

"They just tried to take us out of our offense and they did a good job," Chris Hernandez comments on the ball pressure. "I was calm - just need to execute the offense. But we didn't. We didn't hit the shots inside when we got our looks."

A big part of that was the absence of Justin Davis, who picked up his fourth foul of the game in the fourth minute of the second half. He would sit on the bench for more than 10 minutes before returning to the game. By that time, ASU had taken the lead...

Returning back to the fourth minute, an improbable an event as any came next to give the home crowd yet another shot in the arm. ASU point guard Jason Braxton, who is a suspect shooter at best, put up a three-point shot that used rim and backboard before it went down. He had hit just three treys in his first 10 games this year, yet would hit 2-for-3 this night. This particular shot brought the game down to a five-point affair.

Nick Robinson ended Stanford's scoring drought with two free throws, to make it 44-37, but then ASU came right back and hit an open corner three against Stanford's 1-1-3 zone to trim the lead down to four. The next possession saw an Ike Diogu floating short-range jumper whittle the lead down another two points.

With 13:40 left in the game, a 16-point lead had been quickly slashed to two. The first half dominance was ancient history, and all manner of momentum was with the home team. Stanford answered for to put the lead back at four when Rob Little went to the free throw line in the bonus. He missed the front end, but Josh Childress grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled to send him to the line. Then he missed the first shot in the double-bonus, coming away with just one point. Free throw shooting would be a bugaboo throughout the second half, and helped to put the Card in repeated tough situations.

The five-point lead was immediately knocked down to two with a Serge Angounou three-pointer, but Hernandez hit his second trey of the game to answer and move the score back out to 52-47. The "unconscious" Sun Devils hit another long perimeter jumper, this time from Braxton with his toes on the line, but Lottich answered with a quick three-pointer on the first touch of the next possession. Stanford breathed a sigh of relief with some cushion at 55-49, but Braxton knocked down another improbable three at the top of the key to ignite a 7-0 run.

With 6:41 to go in the game, Angounou hit another long jumper, this time just inside the arc, to give ASU their first lead since the opening minutes of the game: 56-55.

Game on.

The teams traded free throws, with Josh Childress hitting the last pair to give Stanford a 58-57 lead, but the Card could not find any field goal scores. For Arizona State's part, they again went to the outside shot against Stanford's defense, as Jamal Hill scored his only points of the game on an incorrectly scored trey. He had his toes on the line, but there was no official review of the two-pointer.

The 62-59 lead looked like a big one with both teams playing tight defense and less than two minutes to go in the game. Justin Davis, with foul troubles all game, made a surprising if not risky steal that gave Chris Hernandez the ball on the break, which he took to the hole and drew the foul. The redshirt sophomore point guard hit his first shot from the charity stripe and missed the second, but an ASU lane violation gave him second life, which he converted.

The #4 Stanford Cardinal now trailed by one point, 62-61 with a minute to go. ASU could not find a good look on their possession and missed a three-point attempt, giving Stanford the ball. They ran a motion offense that resulted in a pull-up jumper for Childress from 18 feet, which he missed. The upstart Sun Devils pulled down the rebound, and Stanford had to foul. With 21 seconds left in regulation, Braxton missed the front end of the one-and-one, with Childress snagging the rebound.

Hernandez quickly brought the ball down the floor and fed it to Justin Davis in the low post, but his shot off the glass came up short. Josh Childress was sitting up at the top of the key for an open perimeter jump shot opportunity, but as he saw Davis spin toward the glass he charged to the basket. He skied over Diogu to grab the offensive rebound and put it in on the same motion.

There was still 9.4 seconds left in the game, with the Card up 63-62, and Rob Evans took a timeout. He gave Braxton the ball to race up the court, and about 12 feet from the basket the ASU point guard ran up against Chris Hernandez. Braxton gave a clear forearm shove that knocked Hernandez down, but with no whistle he turned around for the open jumper. The shot was hard off the glass, with Rob Little bringing down the game-saving rebound. There was still a second left on the clock, and as Angounou tried to foul Little. The backside official raised his arm as if to call a foul, but he blew his whistle after the final buzzer. Despite protests from the Sun Devil players and coaches, the game was concluded.

For the second straight year, Josh Childress won the game in the final seconds with an offensive rebound and score, to give the visiting Cardinal a one-point victory. The dynamic junior played a season-high 26 minutes off the bench, more than his first prior two games combined (7 + 13 = 20). He scored 14 points and pulled down 11 huge rebounds, includin seven on the offensive end. If you wondered "how fast" Childress could get to a point where he makes a big impact for this team, the wait is over. He played a gutty road game and had the aggressiveness to make attacking plays late in the game. He has told me lately that he still feels a little cautious in this injury return, but something clicked out there today to make him forget any fears.

If there was one concern, it was Childress' conditioning. Both he and Mike Montgomery have said it will take some time to get his wind back for long stretches of game play, and you could say his free throw struggles late in the game were tired arms and tired legs. For that to come in a ballgame where he did not come into the game until the second media timeout, I advise against moving him to the starting position. Based on talent and performance, he clearly has reason to be the starter at the small forward position right now ahead of Nick Robinson. However, I bring him off the bench in Tucson to help get him through the whole game and leave something in the tank for the final minutes.

In the big picture, this was a frighteningly tight game, and it was not one were Stanford just played poorly all game. The Cardinal in fact were executing and defending very well in the first half. But teams with high-level Division I athletes like Arizona State can make runs, and do so even more easily at home. Stanford has not been threatened with as big a run this year as what the Sun Devils achieved in this game, and more importantly the team was tested in the final minutes for the first time. That is something every championship team needs to experience, and player relished the test.

"I thought in the last 1:30 we got out and pressured the ball. They didn't execute as well as they could," says Hernandez of Stanford's late defense. "I like games like this - they're character builders. Winning by 40 is nice, but you don't learn anything about yourself. We looked in the mirror tonight and answered the call."

Matt Lottich led all scorers with 18 points, though he chucked up a lot of shots that did not go down. 3-for-10 is not what he wants to from outside, but the shooting guard was instrumental in ball movement that found a lot of teammates for baskets. His six assists were highest on the team. Justin Davis scored six quick points in the game and finished with 11 on 5-of-9 shooting, but foul trouble kept him out most of the action. Chris Hernandez sank all four of his free throws on top of those two three-point bombs to reach 10 points.

Perhaps the game was won, though, with Stanford's defense. That may sound outrageous with what they gave up on the perimeter to ASU in the second half, but the Sun Devils were forced to resort to outside shots with what the Card did inside. The made a point of limiting Ike Diogu's touches, and did so with textbook rotation double-teams to force him to pass out. The preseason All-American center shot just eight field goal attempts and reached the foul line just six times. He hit from both areas with a high percentage, but 13 points for the leading scorer in the conference is a marvelous result. ASU scored other places because Stanford forced others to beat them, and in the final tally, it appears to have worked.

Barely.

Complete game box score


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