Sunday, March 23, 2008

Men's Basketball NCAA Round 2 vs Marquette 3/22/2008

Stanford 82 Marquette 81 (OT) With a day to kill between our first and second round game, Daniel and I spent Day 2 of March Madness camped out at Disneyland’s ESPN zone, the only sports bar we called that had the Direct TV package. I can’t think of a better way to spend Spring Break. It was simply glorious. Worn out from the day of riveting basketball action, we went to bed early and got up just in time for the Duke – West Virginia match up. Even though I have Duke advancing pretty far in my bracket, I didn’t pain me too much to see Duke lose.

For our 2nd round game, reinforcements had arrived, now that winter quarter finals were done. Understandably, not everyone plans their finals schedule around basketball (unlike me). The 6th Man territory in Section 411 was well-represented and it looked like we filled up all the 75 or so seats we were allotted. Even though the arena was very Bruin-heavy, the overall Stanford turn-out today was much improved. I guess a second round Saturday game gets people’s juices flowing a lot more than a first round game against an Ivy-League team. While waiting for a friend to arrive, I bumped into several of the acquaintances I’ve made on my travels – a couple who I had sat next to during our pre-season scrimmage and seen at Northwestern, Siena and several other away games; a guy who let us store our luggage in his car during the Siena game and commiserated with us at a bar after the loss; the guy who had sat between Alex and I on our plane flight over; and the guy from the ASU game with his face-painted daughter. It was great to see so many familiar faces and it made me not want this journey to end.
As for the game, it was incredible - a huge rollercoaster ride of emotions that left everyone up in Section 411 emotionally drained. From our 7-0 start, Trent’s ejection and subsequent hole that we fell into, Kenny’s 3 which gave us some momentum going into the half and that we seized in the 2nd to gain the lead, only to struggle with the twins in foul trouble and cough back up, fighting back from a deficit with 3 minutes left to force OT, slugging it out basket for basket with Marquette and finally hitting the game winner with 1.2 seconds left. What a game!

Up to the point that Trent got tossed, I thought we had shown that we were the better team. Even though the score was close, we were able to get whatever shot we wanted on offense and Robin was playing like (gasp) a lottery pick. The unfortunate thing, was that many of our good looks simply didn’t go down. Brook’s missed chippies were especially frustrating. On defense, I was somewhat surprised to see us come out playing zone. While Marquette had a lot of good looks, a majority of them didn’t go down and I guess that was the chance we were willing to take. They crashed the boards hard (as one would expect) and got quite a few offensive boards though. I feel that we should consistently send all 5 of our guys to hit the defensive boards, especially since we have no transition game.

Even though we looked the better team, there are no guarantees that the better team wins. This was exacerbated by the terrible 1st half reffing. I thought we were done with Pac-10 refs. I guess I was wrong. Trent’s ejection which came as the result of several questionable calls was absurd. One of the refs justified the call by saying that Trent came on to the floor before a time-out was called. That’s complete BS since all the players were walking towards the bench and it was clearly a media time-out. I’ve never seen a coach ejected with two T’s in such quick succession. With his record of 5 career ejections, I guess we have another Libbey wannabe. I hope he doesn’t get to ref any more games in the tournament. It looked like the players were pretty frazzled after the debacle as Marquette hit all 4 of their technical free throws and jumped out to an 11 point lead. Thankfully, Kenny a big 3 (after a previous one went agonizingly in and out and to me was a sign that today might just not be our day) and we were able to close out the half on a 5-0 run.

Down only 6 at the half and with a well rested Brook Lopez (he picked up 2 fouls and had to sit for a big chunk of the first) I had faith that we would be able to channel our frustration at the refs and come out strong. Brook who eschewed his warm-ups when coming out from the locker room was ready and went to work on the right block. Perhaps his slow start in the first was a blessing in disguise because it made Marquette think that they could play him straight up and never adjusted in the second or in OT. That’s probably going to be one of our biggest advantages when playing non Pac-10 teams. They’ve never had to play against 2 7 footers before and tape can’t quite simulate game-type conditions. Thinking back to the first time we played teams like Oregon, Washington and Arizona, it took them at least a half of trying to play Brook straight up (and failing) before they adjusted. For Marquette, that half was the last half of their season.

Just when it looked like we had regained control and would assert our inside presence, both twins were relegated to the bench after picking up their 3rd fouls. There they would sit for just under 4 minutes – the longest 4 minutes of many Stanford fans’ lives. I understand the logic behind the move but allowing a 6 point lead to wither away when the other team is mostly settling for jumpers doesn’t seem smart. I wish someone could collect a comprehensive set of statistics to analyse this situation. While they’re at it, they could also see what our fast break conversion rate is and whether it would be in our interests to never take a 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 fast break opportunity even if it presents itself. My opinion is that only when Fred is running the break should we continue to press, but that’s just based on my gut feel.

When we were down 6 with about 3 minutes left, and later down 1 Marquette ball with a 10 second differential on the game and shot clock (twice), I thought we were done for, but to the credit of the guys, they kept on fighting. It reminded me of the game against Wazzu in Pulman where they simply would not give up. After missing his first, Robin made the clutchest of free throws, and Fred and then Brook played solid defense to send the game into overtime. OT was a slugfest with each team’s best shot just not good enough to knock the other team out. We managed to get the ball last and after seeing so many shots look good but rim out, we finally got something to go in our favour. And it was the game-winning shot – one of Stanford’s biggest NCAA tournament shots in recent memory.
Wow, what a game. Brook and Robin were amazing. As Mitch commented in the post game conference, these 2 tournament games have been their best at passing out of double teams. I’ve seen glimpse of this before and hope they will continue in our next few games. A pass back out and repost is so much better than tossing up a bad shot. Mitch had 16 assists, 1 turnover and was 3-3 from behind the arc. You can’t ask any more than that. Kenny played some key minutes, hit some big shots and had the happiest feet in the huddle with 1.2 seconds left. It’s a pity he’s leaving next year but I’m glad he’s finally had his chance to shine in games that we’ve won. All in all, kudos to the guys for staring adversity in the eyes and never backing down.
What a tremendous win. It brings to mind a conversation I had with radio broadcaster David Fleming in Pullman where he said that nowadays, a tournament appearance/first round victory is par for the course. If you really want to create something special and make some noise, you have to make it to the second weekend. Well, Houston here we come. This ride ain’t over yet.

No comments: