If there are moral victories in sports, then count this as one; the Sun Devils came up just short in Friday night's 76-71 loss to the New Mexico Lobos at Wells Fargo Arena. Junior Carrick Felix bounced back from his cold-shooting performance this past Tuesday to lead the Devils in points (20), going three of four from behind the arc and missing just one of his free throws (seven of eight). Kendall Williams (16 points, seven assists, seven rebounds) and Drew Gordon (13 points, nine rebounds) were benched by Lobo Head Coach Steve Alford to start the game but responded by hitting a combined 60% of their shots.
But with improved ball movement and more defensive energy there was still a lot to for Head Coach Herb Sendek to be satisfied with tonight.
"I thought we made improvement," Sendek said. "We were more of a team tonight."
Carrick Felix set the tone for his excellent night by stroking a three on the Sun Devils first attempt. From that very moment, the Sun Devils seemed like a rejuvenated roster, even only two days removed the disastrous home 66-60 home loss to Pepperdine. The Sun Devils were very competitive throughout the first 20 minutes and seemingly had a tremendous amount of momentum following their final shot, another big Felix three (closed out half with 15 points).
"I felt good," Felix said. "I was focused and I was in the right frame of mind."
The Devils remained neck-and-neck with the Lobos, trading blows before back-to-back threes from NMU guard Tony Snell put the visitors up by eight with three and half minutes left to play. Then after two layups from Trent Lockett and Kyle Cain, Chanse Creekmur followed a Keala King missed three with a clutch put back to put ASU down by only two.
Following a few more exchanging of buckets by the teams, ASU was down 71-74 with 23 seconds and remaining and the ball. The Devils gave the ball to their emotional leader, Lockett, despite him not having the best of games (11 points on 3 of 8 shooting). The 6'4" junior got a good look at a three but narrowly missed right, closing the door on Arizona State's chances at mounting a mini-comeback.
"That was a shot I wanted," Lockett said. "I was waiting for it, but it just didn't fall."
One has to wonder though if it would have even came down to that if it wasn't for ASU being lackadaisical with the ball again; the Devils turnover struggles continued Friday, totaling up 19 in the closely contested game.
"Our turnovers just continue to be almost insurmountable," Sendek said. "The quantity and the timing of them make it very difficult on our basketball team; leaves us very little room for error."
The concerning part about that stat was that nearly 75% of those turnovers were generated by ASU's three best ball-handlers: Lockett, King and Chris Colvin.
"It's [Colvin's] first year and point guard isn't [Keala's] natural position," Lockett said. [But] I'm turning the ball over way too much right now as well."
In the end, it's not the outcome the Sun Devils wanted but the vibe from the locker room post game is about as positive as it can be following a defeat.
"It's hard coming off a loss but I feel better," Lockett said. "We really came together more as a team today and we made strides in a lot of areas."
Hopefully the strides continue as the Sun Devils prepare for Fairfield in their opening game of the Old Spice Classic next Tuesday.
- It seems Ruslan Pateev is slowly working himself out of the rotation. After three fouls and one turnover in eight sporadic minutes in the first half, Sendek elected to keep the 7'0" junior on the bench for the final 20 minutes.
- The flashes of brilliance that Chris Colvin showed in the scrimmage and exhibition game against GCU are almost faint memories by now. Through three games, he's averaging only 0.86 assists to every one turnover and making only 28% of his shots from the field. Sendek on Colvin's slow acclimation to the Sun Devil's offense- "We're trying to get him comfortable as he makes the transition here."
- After preaching all off season about having to use the entire bench with only nine scholarship players on his roster, Sendek had just eight players see the court Friday night despite the Pateev, King and Cain each having three first half fouls. Perhaps Sendek's bench will shorter than advertised in close games against solid opponents.