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January 7, 2013

Scrappy Sun Devils turn down Buffaloes

As the game's final buzzer sounded, several thousand of Arizona State's fans in attendance at Wells Fargo Arena remained on their feet for a rousing standing ovation, perhaps the loudest such announcement of their satisfaction in recent memory.

It's been a long, harsh two years for the program's base of support, but after back-to-back 10th place finishes in league play eviscerated memories of a second place effort in 2009-10, basketball in Tempe again feels relevant.

ASU on Sunday turned a 20-7 early deficit into a 65-56 win over Colorado to improve to 13-2 overall and 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2007-08 and fourth time overall in 35 Pac-12 seasons.

"It definitely means a lot," senior wing Carrick Felix said of the win, which came against a team that entered the week No. 5 nationally in RPI. "Colorado, they're a well coached team, one of the best teams in the Pac-12 and just coming into this game we knew it was going to be a battle so we stepped up to the challenge. As you can see, we continued to hustle and execute. It definitely comes down to rebounding and being physical."

After having an apparent buzzer beater win over Arizona wiped away by officials Thursday in Tucson, the Buffaloes fell to 10-4 overall and 0-2 in the Pac-12 after reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament less than a year ago.

From the time it held a narrow 44-43 advantage at the 9:53 mark of the second half until just 2:37 remained in the game, ASU managed to hold Colorado scoreless until a Xavier Johnson jumper cut into a 12-point deficit, the Buffaloes' largest of the night. But by then it was too late.

The Sun Devils' free throw woes -- nothing new to a team that ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage -- allowed Colorado to stay within arm's reach, but it never could make it a one possession game as ASU bled out the clock.

"I don't know if there's a better word to depict our team tonight," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "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 I think to me misses the mark."

Felix led all scorers with 20 points and also had eight rebounds in 38 minutes of action -- one of three Sun Devils to play all but two minutes of the game along with freshman point guard Jahii Carson and sophomore forward Jonathan Gilling -- and junior center Jordan Bachynski had 16 points to go along with seven rebounds and nine blocks. It was the most shots turned away from the rim by an ASU player in a Pac-12 game.

"Bachynski was the difference in the game," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "We tried to attack him but his blocked shots in the second half, and we missed open threes that we normally make. We have to be mentally tough enough to overcome that, and right now we're not, because we let the frustrations on the offensive end --the shots not going in or getting our shots blocked at the rim -- affect us defensively. We were not tough enough yet."

Colorado entered the game the league's second best 3-point shooting team, but finished 2 of 19 from the distance and couldn't buy a bucket through most of the second half, with Bachynski anchoring the middle on ball penetration. Spencer Dinwiddie led the Buffaloes with 19 points, but it took him 20 shots to do it and he made just 1 of 8 from behind the 3-point line.

"The second half defensively I think was the best we did all year," Felix said. "I think we really buckled down on our assignments and I think we really nipped it in the bud. Our halftime talk, just about the little things we needed to do and I think we went out there and executed and played hard."

Senior guard Chris Colvin provided a spark, entering the game early for junior Evan Gordon, who didn't score from the field Wednesday in long minutes against Utah, and putting four first half assists on the board as ASU clawed back from 13 down to trail by just three at the half.

It was a vital contribution considering Colorado was focused from the outset at limiting Carson's dribble penetration with a blending of switching and full hedging ball screens. Instead of forcing the issue, Carson effectively moved the ball to his teammates, often creating playmaking opportunities for them as a result.

Colvin made just 3 of 11 from the field and 2 of 7 from the foul line, but had an important nine points, five assists and four rebounds in 31 minutes.

"All I remember right now is (trailing) 17-4," Sendek said. "That score, for whatever reason, is emblazoned in my mind."

But the Sun Devils used a 24-10 run from their biggest deficit of the night to trail by just one point, 31-20 with 26 seconds left in the first half.

Things just continued to get better from there for the home team, which now is very much in the Pac-12 conversation.


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