TEMPE — Gritty Arizona State won’t go away. And as a result, perhaps it’s time to view these Sun Devils as Pac-12 contenders.
It’s not so much that they defeated UCLA 78-60 on Saturday, it’s how they did so. Unlike previous seasons, this team doesn’t need to light it up from 3-point range to defeat a good opponent. They have a different mind-set.
In front of 9,337 fans at Wells Fargo Arena, ASU out-muscled the Bruins. The Sun Devils got into the paint, they dominated the boards. In doing so they improved to 16-4 and 5-2 in the Pac-12, moving into third place in a conference race that has yet to establish a clear pecking order.
“We’re getting close,” senior forward Carrick Felix said. “I still think we have some things we have to clean up. Staying consistent is definitely the key for us, but I think we’re on our way.”
It was ASU’s biggest win of the season, trumping earlier efforts against Arkansas and Colorado. UCLA, which played without starting forward Travis Wear, was headed into the Top 25 following Thursday’s win over Arizona. That’s probably not the case anymore. The Bruins dropped to 16-5 and 6-2, defeated in Tempe for the first time in three seasons.
“We were really outplayed today,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “Give Arizona State all the credit. I thought they did all the tough things. They were very good at both ends of the floor.”
The Sun Devils led for almost the entire way. For most of the second half their lead was in double digits. They outrebounded UCLA 53-33.
In their last loss, Jan.19 to Arizona, ASU lacked a supporting cast. Against the Bruins, they had contribution from several areas.
Jordan Bachynski started, but was removed from the contest just 3 minutes and 31 seconds later. The coaching staff’s message: rebound. By game’s end, the 7-foot-2 center had posted career highs of 22 points and 15 rebounds. He also blocked six blocked shots.
“J.B., man, he was a beast today,” Felix said.
Felix had seven turnovers in the Arizona loss. Since then, in wins over USC and UCLA, he has one in 83 minutes. Saturday, he provided 23 points, 11 rebounds and strong defense on UCLA leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad.
Sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling has yet to find his shot, but no one can argue his effort — seven points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Then there’s Jahii Carson, who wasn’t spectacular against UCLA, just steady. He finished with 12 points and eight assists, turning the ball over just three times in 40 minutes.
“Our guys, more than anything, play together,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “They’re getting a better understanding of each other and what we’re trying to accomplish. And then I think we owe a lot to Jahii. Even though he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well today, the ball’s in his hands so much … and he just kind of controls things for us.”
Offensively, ASU’s biggest difference is shot selection. Entering Saturday, ASU shot 53.5 percent from two-point range, ranking 19th nationally. The previous two seasons they ranked 77th and 151st, respectively. Against UCLA, the Sun Devils missed 15 of 20 from 3-point range, but shot 56.8 percent from inside the arc.
Defensively, ASU has held four of six Pac-12 opponents to under 40percent shooting. Saturday, they slowed UCLA by playing off point guard Larry Drew, daring him to shoot, which cut off penetration lanes. ASU also limited the Bruins in transition, where they thrive. UCLA shot 34.7 percent, well off its season mark of 47.7, which led the Pac-12.
“The defensive end of the floor more than anything was the difference for us,” Sendek said.
There’s still much basketball left. In fact, the only thing that’s settled at this point is this: For just the fourth time in 18 years, ASU will have a winning conference record at the halfway point of the conference season. Howland is impressed.
“Herb has done a terrific job this season with his team,” he said. “Their defense is very, very good. They’re a team to be reckoned with the rest of the way.”