They say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. After playing arguably their best basketball of the season during the final two games of the holiday tournament last weekend in Sin City, Arizona State looked like a team that left its opportunistic and up-tempo style of play back in The Orleans Arena as they struggled to match the energy and effort of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Despite jumping ahead to an early double digit lead over the visiting Golden Lions behind the hot shooting of Carrick Felix and playmaking of freshman point guard Jahii Carson, the Sun Devils found themselves ahead by just two points at halftime as turnovers and careless offensive execution negated the quick start.
"I just think we came out of the game kind of slow," said Felix afterwards. "I don't think our energy level as there. Arkansas, they controlled the pace the whole game. They're a great team and it showed right there. We've just got to make sure we bring it each day. We've just got to be ready to play every game. Every game is not going to be as easy as t seems. Not every game is going to be there for us to take; we've got to work."
The Sun Devils struggled to attack the zone defense of Pine Bluff, routinely settling for long range jump shots leading to scoring opportunities for the Golden Lions. ASU shot 45% from the field but only converted on 9 of their 24 three point attempts, while also struggling to take care of the ball, allowing the visitors to hang around until the later moments of the game. Additionally, Arizona State committed an alarming 18 turnovers on the night.
"Turnovers were a big issue," said Head Coach Herb Sendek. "It certainly wasn't the only issue but we were just really careless with the basketball. Eighteen turnovers is just way too many. The game wasn’t played at a fast pace, I mean, we only took 47 shots in the game. They clearly controlled the pace of the game, so definitely turnovers were way out of whack.
"I thought early on especially, we really settled. We had an advantage inside that we struggled to take advantage of. I don't mind taking threes, you know that; we'll lead the nation in that, but I just don't want to settle and want it to come within the framework of the offense."
The Sun Devils received major contributions from long range late in the game when they made their push as struggling shooting guard Evan Gordon knocked down a pair of second half three point attempts and sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling 10 of his 13 points in the deciding frame.
"I think Evan Gordon really stepped up in the second half," commented Felix. "He made some good penetrate and kicks and made a couple threes to kind of get himself going. So did Jon Gilling, Jon was big in the second half hitting three threes, almost back to back to back. So that was definitely huge for us. And we definitely dug down on defense at the other end, just picking up the energy and being smart."
"Evan is amazing at what he does," added Felix about Gordon, who entered the game just 5-27 from behind the three point arch. "He can score the ball, man; he can really score the ball. For him, he's starting off kind of slow right now but we've just got to continue to give him confidence. He knows he can shoot. He knows he can make every shot. It's going to come, like tonight.
"Hopefully tonight is a good rhythm starter for him to just get going for the next game because we have big game coming up on Saturday."
Felix though was the catalyst for ASU on Tuesday, making his presence felt on both ends of the court, picking the most appropriate times to pump life into his team when they needed him the most.
After scoring a career-high 24 points in last Friday's win against Arkansas, Felix put up 21 points tonight, while also snaring six rebounds. Defensively, he added two blocks to go along with two steals, all along demonstrating his senior leadership.
"Right now he's playing well and I think it's largely a product of his habits," said Sendek of Felix's recent play. "To earn the right to play well you usually have to develop good habits. I've been saying all along, Carrick worked hard in the offseason. He's in a great place mentally and he's continuing to forge very good habits, and when you have good habits that allow you to play well on a consistent basis."
Entering the game, Felix had been averaging just over 14 points and six rebounds per game, both career highs for the wing player. Good habits, and maybe even more so, a good point guard are the major reasons for Felix's dramatically improved play early this season.
"Just playing slow," explained Felix. "Just kind of waiting for things to come to me. When you have a point guard like Jahii Carson, he's finding me at good spots and so is everybody else. I'm just kind of playing slow and just playing my game."
Against Pine Bluff, Carson had just nine points but also chipped in with eight assists, finding Felix early for his first three baskets, and five rebounds, as the two have formed a close bound since Carson joined the team last year.
"It just goes back to Jahii being a great point guard," added Felix. "He's a great player. We have played together for a while now, I guess you can say we've been used to each other for a minute now, he kind of does know where to get me the ball. We talk throughout the game, but he's a floor general. He just does his job."
With five consecutive home games awaiting the Sun Devils, starting this Saturday with Sacramento State, ASU has a chance to stack the win column if they can continue to play the way they did down the stretch against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and even better, the way they did in Las Vegas.
While the holiday hangover may have finally been pushed aside, Felix knows both he and the Sun Devils need to continue working hard in order to remain successful this year and continue their improved play.
"I've been aggressive so far," he said. "I think I just need to be more aggressive at times and not settle, but so far so good. We've just got to continue to work in practice and just continue to get better as a team and just focus on the rest of the season because it's going to be long. It's definitely going to be long.
“We can't settle and get happy with being 5-1 right now."