Stanford men’s basketball (2-1, 0-0 Pac-12) faced a nearly impossible challenge on Monday night, when they were asked to step into the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and take on the No. 7 ranked North Carolina Tar Heels (3-0). After a first half in which the Cardinal were manhandled, solid adjustments let Stanford remain competitive in the second period, and cut into the UNC lead. Ultimately, the effort was not enough, and Stanford fell, 90-72.
This was the first time in 30 years that Stanford had taken on UNC in North Carolina, but the second time in two years the two teams have clashed in inter-conference play. In 2017, the then-national champion Tar Heels beat the Cardinal in Maples Pavilion 96-72, by a total of 24 points.
Losing by 18 to the Tar Heels this year, in a hostile court, in UNC’s home opener, is a marked improvement for the Cardinal. Even though the loss is tough to bear, the Cardinal showed resilience and toughness throughout all 40 minutes.
The Cardinal lineup looked much different this time around, with the loss of the transferring Reid Travis, and the addition of freshman guard Cormac Ryan and sophomore forward KZ Okpala, who missed last year’s game with injury. Overall, Stanford’s starting five players this year are stronger across the board.
The game did not begin well for the Cardinal, as they quickly fell behind to the tune of 14-3. The first eight minutes were characterized by good defense from both teams and an inability of Stanford players to finish drives at the rim. Stanford’s only points during this stretch came from a Ryan three, of which he made four throughout the course of the game.
North Carolina, meanwhile, immediately figured out the Cardinal defensive setup, and began to take advantage. Head Coach Jerod Haase came out with a zone setup, and UNC’s experience and talent jumped on the opportunity. Forward Luke Maye, a veteran player who figures to be in contention for ACC player of the year, drew interior defenders, and then delivered passes into the high post for dunks consistently throughout the first half. Maye finished with 8 assists in the game.
Stanford’s offense showed sparks at times, making four three-pointers throughout the first half (three from Ryan, one from Okpala), but truly struggled, particularly in the interior. Players took bad floaters in the paint and demonstrated sloppy layup form. As much as the UNC defense frustrated the Cardinal, the Cardinal frustrated themselves. They shot a meager 35.5 percent from the field in the first 20, compared to the 60 percent that UNC finished with.
This frustration was also present on the glass. Stanford could not seem to get a single board in the first half, getting outmuscled on the offensive and defensive ends of the court. The first half ended with 24 rebounds for UNC and 11 for Stanford, but at one point, the discrepancy was 18-6. At one point, Ryan, the 6’5” guard, led the team with 5 assists, more than the 7’0” senior center Josh Sharma
Once they got these rebounds, the UNC offense was absolutely beautiful in transition. They presented a level of full-court fluidity that Stanford just was not prepared for. It was an eye opening experience for the entire team. UNC guard Coby White dashed past Stanford sophomore guard Daejon Davis nearly every fast break, and his vision was unbeatable in the first half.
Also damning for Stanford was the difference in free throws. Stanford did not make it to the stripe a single time during the first half. UNC put up 11, with seven of them striking home.
The first half ended with a buzzer-beating three-point shot by Maye, a dagger that put UNC up 52-26, doubling the Cardinal score. Stanford would never recover from this deficit.
That being said, whatever halftime adjustments Haase made, whatever empowering speech he gave to the team in the locker room, completely changed the tone of the game. Stanford returned to the court without even a trace of defeat on their faces, and played an absolutely ferocious second half.
In fact, the Cardinal outscored the Tar Heels in the second 20 minutes of the game, 46-38.
The most noticeable example of the change in performance for Stanford was sophomore forward Oscar Da Silva. In the first half, he was the worst player on the court — he was taking bad shots, committing turnovers and fouling everyone. In the second half, he looked like the best Cardinal performer.
Da Silva was 0-2 from the field with one rebound, three personal fouls, one assist and two turnovers in the first half. In the second half, he had 11 points on 5-9 shooting, one three-pointer, six rebounds, two assists and only one turnover.
Stanford’s improvement was across the board. Okpala showed off his talent with some incredible drives and big dunks. Davis showed off his eagle eye and picked up three more assists, raising his total on the night to four. Freshman center Lukas Kisunas entered the game for the first time and was a monster on the offensive and defensive glass, grabbing four rebounds in 12 minutes. Most importantly, the team found their way to the stripe with solid drives, shooting 15 free throws and making 11.
Throughout it all, the Cardinal players played like a team that believed every second of the way that they could win. They scrapped, forced turnovers, played tighter defense and seemed to not doubt for a single second that they would overcome a 26 point deficit.
The team brought the lead down to 17 at one point, and had the ball on a fast break to junior forward Marcus Sheffield for a nearly guaranteed basket. UNC came up with a last second steal, and flung the ball the other way for a three pointer, in what was essentially a five point swing. The game had probably been over for a while, but was definitely over after that.
Still, it was a strong showing against a talented team, and a phenomenal learning moment for a very young Stanford squad. UNC will undoubtedly be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament this March.
Stanford will return home to the farm to take on the Wofford Terriers this Thursday in Maples Pavilion. If they can secure a win, they will start the season 3-1, an excellent omen for the rest of the season.
Okpala finished the game as the scoring leader with 16 points, nine rebounds and two assists. Ryan contributed 14 points, four three-pointers, five rebounds and six assists. Da Silva ended the game with 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu