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January 29, 2012Arizona State has battled its share of daemons in the first three months of the season, many self created and others by way of unfortunate circumstance.
After seeing its top freshman recruit ruled ineligible, three of its players face suspension early in Pac-12 play, one of its leading scorers dismissed from the program and the other suffer an ankle sprain, ASU appeared to be limping toward the halfway point in league play, literally.
A strange thing happened instead though, as the the Sun Devils played arguably their best ball of the season - even without their best player, junior Trent Lockett, still out with an ankle injury - Saturday in a 71-67 win over Washington State in front of 6,224 at Wells Fargo Arena.
The win improved ASU to 7-14 overall and 3-6 in the Pac-12. Washington State fell to 11-10 and 3-6.
"We've got through a lot," said junior wing Carrick Felix, who led the Sun Devils with 20 points, five rebounds and four assists. "Excuse my language but we've been through hell and back. We're all fighting together, we believe, and we can only keep going forward. We battle every day in practice, we work hard every day. I believe everything happens for a reason and I believe it's going to pay off in the end. We've got to keep working, keep grinding and keep believing."
Keeping the faith requires a healthy amount of confidence in teammates, and that's where the Sun Devils were at their best Saturday, with more assists (18) than turnovers (16) for the first time in conference play.
Led by freshman forward Jonathan Gilling, who had seven assists, the crisp passing enabled ASU to shoot 54.5 percent from the field in the game and erase a three game slide that included a horrific performance on the road last week against lowly Utah.
"The key for us was our movement of the ball," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "I thought we shared the ball and played together and made each other better throughout the game, especially some terrific possessions in the first half. If you said at the halfway point of the Pac-12 season, what is the single most improved area for this basketball team I'd have to say our ball movement, our passing, our ability to play together."
After ASU lead by as much as 10 points in the first half, Washington State clawed back to re-take the lead with 4:06 left in the period. With 1:36 left in the half, junior point guard Chris Colvin, who would finish with a career-best 16 points, hit a 3-pointer to put the Sun Devils back on top, and they maintained a lead through the rest of the game.
"I think Chris Colvin arguably played his best game as a Sun Devil," Sendek said. "Obviously his career high in scoring but much more importantly he's settling in and starting to get more comfortable with what we're doing."
Despite playing just 17 minutes due to foul trouble, sophomore Jordan Bachynski also had a career high with 11 points.
Washington State, led by a career-high 34 points by Brock Motum, twice cut its deficit to 3 points in the game's final 30 seconds, but couldn't get any closer.
"I think our guys are just starting to understand better, they're starting to get more comfortable with what we're doing," Sendek said. "That and the 2x4 we just keep hitting them over the head with.
"This is great, this is why you coach. This has been challenging, exhilarating, a lot of fun. Let's face it, this group has been through a great deal and their perseverance can serve as a great example to all of us who, let's face it, we all have our struggles in life. But they're a fun group to be with. We keep telling them the truth, it's not all rose petals. We hit them right between the eyes with things we need to do better and we're trying to hold ourselves accountable, and so it's gratifying on a day like today where they finally get some taste of reward for all of their efforts and perseverance."