LAS VEGAS - In a city known for its flair and over the top theatrics, Jahii Carson and the Sun Devils put on a show fitting for a Las Vegas setting on Wednesday afternoon, out-dueling the Cardinal in a tightly-contested, overtime thriller to begin the Pac-12 tournament action.
Behind a small ball line-up and some hot shooting to start the game, the Sun Devils raced ahead of Stanford early, leading by as many as nine before carrying a 35-33 lead into halftime. But after the Cardinal would reclaim a brief lead to begin the second half, ASU, led by its sensational freshman point guard would charge back, staking to an eight point lead with just 1:10 to play.
However, a three point barrage by Stanford, including a four point play by point guard Aaron Bright with 38 seconds remaining to play, would force the game into overtime and threaten to end the Sun Devils' hopes of an NCAA tournament bid once and for all.
"In a lot of ways this game almost typified our season," said Head Coach Herb Sendek afterwards. "First, it was close. Second, it went to overtime. And third, I thought our guys once again just played with a lot of heart."
After the Cardinal staked to a two point lead to start the extra frame, the Sun Devils raced back, with Carson chipping in five of his game-high 34 points. Evan Gordon came up big for Arizona State down the stretch, converting most of his nine free throws in the overtime period as the Sun Devils hung on for the thrilling overtime win.
"I woke up today just with positive energy," Carson remarked. "My family, other ASU alumni text me and sent me positive energy. So when I get positive energy from other people, I get in a good mental state, and today I was in the zone. When I'm in the zone, I keep attacking and trying to put pressure on the defense. Good things happen when you're in a good mental state and you attack the defense."
Carson finished the game with 34 points on 14-22 shooting, to go along with four assists and three rebounds.
"I just try to come up big on big stages," said Carson. "I know my teammates look a lot for me to create for them and create for myself, and I try to go out there and make big plays. It's good that Coach lets me get the ball and push the basketball, that keeps the defense occupied. And my teammates had open shots today, and that allowed me to create for myself as well."
"We tried to squeeze the court on Jahii Carson to shrink the floor so he doesn't see as much space, and he was still able to squeeze through gaps and made plays," said Stanford Head Coach Johnny Dawkins. "He was that good."
But he wasn't the only significant contributor for ASU in the win as senior Carrick Felix, who was named the Pac-12's Student-Athlete of the Year before the game, notched his 13th double-double of the season with 19 points and 12 rebounds, while also providing a boost on the defensive end as the Sun Devils utilized a small ball line-up against the taller Cardinal.
Felix spent most of the afternoon matched up against Stanford's Dwight Powell, who despite recording 23 points and nine rebounds, was frustrated on both ends by the quicker, more agile Felix.
"Man, Dwight Powell is a great player," said Felix. "I really had to play him straight up. I knew he was going to get his buckets and get his baskets, but the key to that was just make tough ones."
"Carrick's a really good player," remarked Powell. "He's smart. He knows how to use his body, and obviously offensively they take advantage of his strength. So it was a challenge on both offense and defense."
The Sun Devils also received a big boost from Jon Gilling and Evan Gordon, two players whose offensive contributions had shrunk in recent weeks as the team endured its losing streak.
Gilling helped stretch the Stanford defense, knocking down 4 three point baskets and finishing with 14 points, six rebounds and three assists.
Evan Gordon started slowly but made his presence felt at the free throw line, converting 9 of 11 attempts late in the second half and overtime to help keep the Cardinal from completing their comeback. Gordon finished with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists.
"I think Evan Gordon stepped up for us big time," commented Felix. "And Chris Colvin battled with (Josh) Huestis in the second half; boxing him out, making sure he didn't get on the boards in overtime. Overall, we were just composed. We believe in ourselves and I think that was the key."
After falling to Stanford in the two teams' only other meeting of the year 62-59 in Tempe, where the Sun Devils were overwhelmed by the Cardinal frontcourt, Sendek used a small line-up to counter Stanford's height advantage with their speed. Surprisingly, Arizona State played the Cardinal strong in the paint, only being out-rebounded by two (38-36) and only being out-scored in the paint by two as well (40-38).
The Sun Devils were able to keep the Cardinal off the free throw line, limiting Stanford to just one attempt while converting 14-17 from the charity stripe themselves.
ASU will now move on to face UCLA Thursday at noon, in a rubber match between the two teams. The Sun Devils defeated the Bruins by 18 in Tempe knack in January but were knocked off in overtime just two weeks ago in Los Angeles.
"They're a tough team," said Carson. "They're a good team. They have a lot of the strong weapons that they have on their team. But I think we come out with the same mentality we came out with today, the same energy, the same toughness, I think we can control that game and control the tempo. And I think it's going to be a pretty good game. We come out with a victory if we come out with the same mentality we had today."
"It's a whole new season," added Felix. "It's definitely great momentum for us to have going into tomorrow, and we just need to capitalize on it. Just ride it out. I mean, right now I think all the guys are feeling good.
"Like Jahii said, there is a lot of positive energy going on right now, and we just know what's at stake, and we're going to go out there and leave it on the floor every single time. It's going to be a battle."