In a game that featured twenty two lead changes and eleven ties, the Sun Devils managed to steal a much needed victory from the Wildcats, perhaps bumping them off the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble and giving ASU their first back to back wins of the season.
"By far one of the best games we've put together, I think, all season," exclaimed Carrick Felix afterwards. "But we're just going to keep chipping away. We're all coming closer, coming together; we really believed in this one and the coaches put together a great plan.”
"Coach is probably one of the best X and O guys there is in the country and you give him a week to prepare for a game, he goes into his office and can brew up some concoctions," joked Trent Lockett. "He had a good game plan coming out today and I think we executed pretty well."
Trailing by six at halftime, the Sun Devils used a 7-0 burst in the second half's opening minutes to regain control and set the tone for the game's remainder. Leading the attack was Felix, who turned in a game-high 23 points to go along 3 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists.
"I thought a real key for us was the start of the second half, after losing momentum and not executing at the end of the first half, our guys came out and delivered the first blow and had a 7-0 run," commented head coach Herb Sendek. "I thought that was a really important stretch of the game for our team psychologically and then they kept stride the rest of the twenty minute period."
Felix, who missed the team's last two games with an undisclosed virus, proved to be the spark plug that Arizona State needed, something that even Sendek admitted he couldn't have predicted.
"That's the other undercurrent of our season; we've had really key guys miss big chunks of our conference season," remarked Sendek. "Carrick was really sick, he was literally in bed. And even this week, with our bye week, it was a very gradual return. He went through the week with a gradual return to action and I just thought his energy today was contagious for our team.
"He played to his strengths today, and when he's playing with energy in his game, he's a really good player."
No less impressive for ASU was the play of Lockett, who also missed action earlier this season with an ankle injury that has continued to limit him even after his return, as he paced the Sun Devil attack on both ends of the floor. Lockett chipped in 21 points - one of three Sun Devils to score more than 20 points - while also totaling 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals. As a team, ASU registered 13 steals, there most in a game this season.
Lockett also went 6-6 from the free throw line in the game's closing seconds to secure the win.
"I just thought there were a number of possessions where he just willed for something to happen for us," said Sendek. "He made something really good out of almost nothing and just kind of overpowered with his will."
For Arizona State, it was by far their most balanced and complete effort of the season. Chris Colvin once again did an admirable job manning the point guard position for the Sun Devils, who after hitting last week's game-winner, responded with 5 points, 9 assists, 3 steals and just two turnovers. For a team that has struggled to sustain consistency, Sunday was the kind of offensive display Sun Devils fans have been yearning to see.
"We have some pretty big wings and guards, so we like to, off our flex, put them in the post every now and then and exploit our mismatches," said Lockett. "Carrick can get to the basket. Jon got to the basket. We have a lot of people who can create options and we've been using that pretty well lately."
The team shot nearly 56% from the field and perhaps most surprisingly, 92% (22-24) from the free throw line. Combined with just 10 turnovers, three during the game's deciding second half, the Sun Devils were able to pull out the unexpected victory in front of a Wells Fargo Arena crowd littered with Arizona blue and red.
"Two areas on offense that we've been addressing all year have been our turnovers and our free throw shooting," said Sendek. "We've maintained all along that if we can somehow get our turnovers in the neighborhood of twelve or fewer and if we can convert better at the free throw line, that would put us in a much better position to be competitive, and this afternoon, both of those things happened."
From the game's opening tip the Sun Devils showed they were not intimidated by the Wildcats, who had come in as the Pac-12's fourth ranked team. After a Felix leaner, talented freshman Jonathan Gilling knocked down the first of 5 three point attempts for him on the afternoon, as he set a new career high with 21 points, punctuated by his final three point basket with 57 seconds, giving the Sun Devils a four point lead they refused to relinquish down the stretch.
"He hit a lot of big shots and you can't say enough about his courage and his poise, especially on that last three pointer when Chris came off the ball screen and left it for the throw back," commented Sendek. "He took that shot in rhythm like he was Larry Bird. He just has a lot of ice water in his veins for a first year player."
Despite suffering a mild concussion last week, sophomore center Jordan Bachynski continued his much improved play throughout the season's second half as he exploited the Wildcats lack of a post presence. Despite a slow start, Bachynski owned the paint and added 11 points along with a career-high 6 blocked shots, contesting nearly every low post attempt by Arizona, forcing them into taking a number of long shots late in the game.
"My coaches have been working with me a lot in practice to not be so soft, I guess," remarked Bachynski. "To take the ball to the hole instead of letting them bump me and getting me off my shot. It's a combination of things. It's not just one thing that I can name. My guards pass me the ball exactly where I need it. They led me to be in an area where I would be able to be successful."
"I think guys are getting better, despite the fact that we haven't always enjoyed the kind of outcome like today," said Sendek. "You look at a young man like Jordan Bachynski. We've talked about it since the middle of January; our game at Utah seems to be a key turning point in his development. And you look at a guy like Jeff Pendergraph and Eric Boateng and how they came along through our program, you can really begin to see some great signs of hope for Jordan."
Signs of hope are what Sun Devil fans are clinging to now, and bragging rights, of course. Despite an overall disappointing season, the Sun Devils have shown promise for the future. For now though, they'll shift their focus to next week's Pac-12 tournament in Los Angeles where they face Stanford on Wednesday night in perhaps another chance to pull of another unexpected win.
"It means a lot," said Felix of the win. "It gives us a lot of momentum and after this one a lot of guys' spirits are up; I think we're ready to go. We have a big opportunity coming up next Wednesday, so we've just got to prepare. We got another day tomorrow to go in and execute and get ready for our next opponent. I think going into the Pac-12 tournament we'll be good."