Coming off a close, disappointing loss to the Arizona Wildcats at home last Wednesday, the Stanford men’s basketball team (8-8, 1-3 Pac-12) had its back against the wall, staring down the barrel of losing four straight in the Pac-12. In a must-win contest, the Cardinal took on the Arizona State Sun Devils (11-5, 2-2) on Saturday afternoon, and powered through to claim an 85-71 upset victory. With their first win in the Pac-12 coming in such a dominant fashion, the Cardinal men proved that despite their slow start, they are a legitimate force in the conference.
“I think we’re gonna have ebbs and flows throughout the year,” head coach Jerod Haase said. “I actually believe at this point we’re trending up. I’m optimistic we are moving in the right direction, and today was a good step.”
Hot or cold, contenders in the NCAA aren’t truly complete without star talent, and the emergence of Stanford’s own superstar has been a principal reason for their success this season. Sophomore forward Kezie “KZ” Okpala has become the consistent, talented, impact player that the team truly needed.
Okpala was nearly unstoppable against the Sun Devils, moving the ball into the paint at will, and shooting 4-5 from three-point range. He finished with 21 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two steals, shooting 61 percent from the floor. When the ball is in the hands of Okpala, he takes advantage of every opportunity he gets. He split double teams, demonstrated mastery of his jump stop and finished beautifully at the rim all game.
The soft-spoken Okpala was nonchalant about his stellar game, particularly his hot three-point shooting.
“It was just teammates just finding me, if I’m open, I’m gonna shoot it,” he said. “They were just falling.”
The contest opened fairly evenly, with the Cardinal and the Sun Devils duking it out in every possession. Stanford kept the game close by keeping their fouls low, and their offense aggressive. There was a certain out-of-the-gate intensity to Stanford’s game that wasn’t present against the Wildcats.
With Stanford up 14-7, the largest lead by either team in the first half, Arizona State reminded the Cardinal that they had their own star player to rely on. Luguentz Dort, the star Canadian point guard for the Sun Devils, drained three consecutive three-pointers on three consecutive possessions to give ASU the lead.
Luckily for the Cardinal, Dort’s impact lessened from this point. Picking up two early personal fouls, and a third quickly after re-entering, Dort rode the bench for much of the game and only played for 24 minutes. In the second half, freshman guard Cormac Ryan drew a charge on Dort, giving him four fouls, and he would foul out in the final five minutes of the game.
The score at the half was 40-38, with the Cardinal leading. The most shocking statistic of the half, however, was the Stanford turnover number. They committed just three turnovers in the first half, and had only one until the five-minute mark of the frame. This vastly improved turnover margin was one of the team’s primary goals for improvement.
“If we turn it over every time, it just gets into a choppy game, deflates our defense,” Haase commented. “I think the turnover piece of it, valuing the basketball is really a key. I think they executed that piece today and we need to continue that moving forward.”
Coming out of the half, Stanford ripped open a 12-0 run on the Sun Devils that tore the game open and gave the Cardinal the advantage. This offensive rhythm was facilitated in part by another rising Stanford star, sophomore forward Oscar Da Silva.
“He was awesome. I’ve talked about it many many times, if we want to be a big time team he has to be one of the pieces that plays at a high level,” Haase said. “For the most part this year we’ve been the KZ show, and Daejon [Davis], when he plays well, we have a chance. It’s been kind of slim pickings from there. We need to have four guys every game playing at a high level.”
Da Silva notched 21 points of his own, including a few massive dunks over stunned Sun Devils. The German second-year shot 9-11 from the floor, including 2-3 from three. He grabbed ten boards for a double double, and contributed four assists.
“It felt good, I found my flow offensively pretty early, my teammates kept finding me. I got a lot of open, easy shots, and that gives you confidence throughout the game,” Da Silva said. “I think you can’t judge performance just based on stats, but I did go in with the right mindset today, which I haven’t been lately. In that regard I think I made a step forward today. Stats-wise it was one of my best games.”
Sophomore point guard Daejon Davis also had a solid performance, putting up 13 points and nine assists, in addition to getting to the free-throw line a team-high five times. Haase’s expectations for the team include four to five star performances from the players, and Saturday’s contest showed exactly what that looked like.
“I thought the competitiveness was really good, the execution of the game plan was really good,” Haase said. “Obviously some slip-ups here and there, but this was the best performance we’ve had.”
The Sun Devils were not able to recover from the 12-0 run put on by the Cardinal, and Stanford led for the rest of the game, ending with the reserves on the court and the Cardinal clinching the 85-71 win.
The Stanford men seem convinced that they can put together a run at the Pac-12 championship, particularly if they’re playing their best basketball. They’ll have the chance to put their money where their mouths are this Thursday, as they travel to Seattle to take on the University of Washington, a solid challenge on the road.
“We’re ready now,” Okpala said. “We know what we can do, we know we can beat any team. We’re ready.”
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu