As a freshman, KZ Okpala’s calling card was elite, lockdown defense. Tonight he announced to all who would listen that he’s a forced to be reckoned with on the other end.
The skilled sophomore poured in 29 points on just 12 shots from the field. He was relentless in getting to the rim, using his step-throughs and pirouettes to near perfection. He also pulled down 10 boards and dished out 5 assists. “[KZ] has a high ceiling, and the crazy thing is that ceiling’s a lot higher than where he is right now,” said Coach Haase.
Things didn’t start out so great for the Cardinal. Their offensive game plan in the first half was clear: get the ball to the rim. Haase orchestrated a weaving attack designed to help his gifted slashers turn the corner. Time after time Stanford got into the paint, but they finished the first half just 8-22 from inside the arc. The Redhawk defense collapsed, forcing a number of difficult, twisting looks. For much of the first period, the referees swallowed their whistles and let the teams play.
Seattle mounted an eight point advantage late in the half, and it seemed like there might be an upset in the making. Time and time again they penetrated the Stanford man defense and pitched to good looks, including three early threes by Anand Hundal. But it wasn’t long before the tide turned.
Okpala took over the game on both ends. He dug in on defense, denying the ball on the perimeter and blocking three shots inside. On offense, he was finally the beneficiary of foul calls, getting to the line for eleven first half foul shots. By the break, that eight point deficit was a four point lead. Stanford would never relinquish that lead.
In the second half, the Cardinal used hot outside shooting and a renewed vigor on defense to pull away. They outpaced the Redhawks 56-38 in the period, including an 18 point advantage from beyond the arc. On the night, Stanford was 11-15 from distance. Cormac Ryan, KZ Okpala, and Jaiden Delaire were the main culprits.
Cormac Ryan came in heralded as one of the top shooters in his class, and he was every bit as good as billed. The marksman finished 5-6 from distance, including a deep second half bomb that went in without so much as perturbing the nylon. When asked when he last lost a game of H-O-R-S-E, his answer was simple: “man, I can’t even remember”.
Perhaps even more encouraging than Ryan’s shooting was his composure, as he was forced to run the offense for some 15 minutes as Daejon Davis sat on the bench with foul trouble. The attack did not miss a beat with the freshman at the helm. His coach affectionately described him as “a forty year old man”, noting the ease of communication with the young point guard. Tonight seems to be a sign of things to come for Ryan.
Jaiden Delaire also turned in a strong debut, with 8 points and 5 rebounds off the bench. He got extended run at the five as Josh Sharma was mired with foul trouble for much of the night. Though he joined the team late, he already appears to be a key part of the rotation, logging 26 minutes on the night.
Marcus Sheffield had a solid game, in what was his first action since fracturing his foot last year. The senior scored 10 points off the bench, including a fall away corner three late in the game.
Stanford will travel to North Carolina this weekend, where they will face Haase’s old friend CB McGrath and his tough UNC Wilmington squad. They will then make their way to Chapel Hill to battle with Roy Williams and the Tar Heels.