Coming off a controversial overtime loss to Arizona on Thursday night in Tucson, it was anybody's guess how Colorado would respond against the Sun Devils. Through the first seven and a half minutes of action, having jumped ahead by a score of 17-4, they looked every bit like the team who led the Wildcats by double digits late in that contest.
However, that's when Arizona State began to make its move.
Behind a suffocating team defense and the sensational play of Carrick Felix and Jordan Bachynski, ASU pulled within three by halftime and quickly overtook the road-weary Buffs in the second half, hanging on for a dramatic win, sending them to 2-0 in conference play for the first time since the 2007-08 season when the team won its first four, then Pac-10, games of the season.
"I was really proud of our guys after falling behind early, that they kept their poise and continued to chip away until we got back into the game," said ASU Head Coach Herb Sendek.
"For us to be able to step up and play like we did and come out with the win, I mean it wasn't an overtime win so I think that's a little bit better than our friends down south," quipped Bachynski.
After a horrific first seven minutes of play, one that featured five turnovers by the Sun Devils and 1-8 shooting from the field, ASU quickly regained its form. Energized by their senior leader, Felix, the team dominated both ends of floor, limiting Colorado to just 35 percent shooting from the field for the evening, including 26 percent in the second half and just 2-19 overall from behind the three point line, while finding their own ways to attack the hoop offensively.
"I think the second half, defensively was the best we've done all year," said Felix. "I think we really buckled down on our assignments and really nipped it in the bud."
For the second consecutive game against a conference foe Felix led the team in scoring, finishing with 20 points on 7-15 shooting, including two three point baskets to jumpstart the stagnant ASU offense in the first half. The swingman also collected eight rebounds and two blocked shots, out-dueling Colorado's front court standout Andre Roberson on the night while igniting the raucous Sun Devil crowd.
"He's a huge guy for us for energy," said Bachynski of Felix. "He doesn't take enough credit for the energy he brings, not only in games but in practices. The guy is always on. He's the reason we have energy."
"Appreciate it man," said Felix, humbly.
After being outplayed on Wednesday by Utah's Jason Washburn, Bachynski responded with his own impressive performance against the Buffs. The junior center posted 16 points, 7 rebounds and a staggering 9 block shots, controlling the paint and adding to the frustration of a Colorado offense that failed to establish a post presence against the one-man ASU wrecking crew.
"Block City," Felix said jokingly after the game, making reference to the 'Lob City' moniker used by the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers.
"J.B. did a really good job of protecting the basket," he added. "He's one of the top shot blockers in the nation right now. I mean, we don't really look for him to help that much but he's a huge factor on defense. I mean, he's 7'2". You can't teach 7'2"."
For the season, Bachynski now has 69 blocked shots, tying him with former Sun Devil Tommy Smith for fourth all-time in blocks in a season at Arizona State.
"He just has great instinct," remarked Sendek. "Obviously he has the gift of size but we've all seen a lot of big guys not be able to do that. That’s almost something that's a gift. It's instinctual. It's not necessarily something you can teach. As he's moved into his third year that's something that has really become a big part of his game for us."
Helping Bachysnki control the paint was sophomore forward Jon Gilling, who continues to assert himself as a rebounding machine despite his limited size. Gilling submitted another double-double on Sunday with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
"We've turned him into Dennis Rodman," joked Sendek.
Against the tall and athletic Buffaloes, Sendek stuck to a much smaller rotation than he had implemented in the team's previous fourteen games. Senior Chris Colvin, who played sparingly in Wednesday night's contest, registered 31 minutes of action in place of the inconsistent Evan Gordon, asserting himself early and helping carry the load the on a night when freshman Jahii Carson struggled to find his groove.
Colvin totaled nine points, five assists and four rebounds, orchestrating the Sun Devil attack and creating for others.
"Tonight, I think he really used his penetration skills to the best of his ability," said Felix. "He looked to drive and kick it, which he's really good at. I mean, we were just at the right spots at the right time. I just got to thank Chris because he's so unselfish."
"We really needed his defensive size and I just thought his toughness really helped out team," added Sendek. "He ended up with five assists; he had four in the first half. He did a great job of breaking the defense down and got Jordan a couple of easy baskets."
With the win, ASU notched their first signature victory of the season, over a team who won the Pac-12 tournament last season, advancing further than any other conference team in the NCAA tournament and one expected to contend in postseason play against this year.
The Sun Devils are off to their best start since James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph led the team to the NCAA tournament, and are similarly doing it with a talented wing and post player combination as well.
"The guys just played with a lot of heart," said Sendek. "To me, it's heart. I don't know if there's a better word to depict our team tonight. We just had a lot of heart. I think it starts with our leader, Carrick Felix. I could search for other ways to explain the same thing but anything short of that misses the mark."
The Sun Devils will now travel to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Oregon schools next week before returning home to face rival Arizona on January 19th.