In a Pac-10 devoid of a great team and rife with parity, Arizona State decided Friday night it would be a bad idea to climb into an 0-3 hole to start the conference and instead played inspired basketball, earning a 68-51 win over No. 24 Washington at Wells Fargo Arena.
The Sun Devils (11-5; 1-2) struggled in the league's opening week, with losses at UCLA and USC, and it led them to a dangerous precipice: an easy opportunity to fall deeply; a tougher challenge to start to climb. They chose the latter, using tenacious defense and rebounding efforts to topple a clearly more athletic Huskies (10-4; 1-2) squad.
It was a game ASU coach Herb Sendek and junior Ty Abbott each separately described as a "gut check" win.
Psychologically intact, the Sun Devils were led by junior Rihards Kuksiks, who tied a career-high with 27 points and had nine rebounds, and Abbott, who had 17 points. But it was the team's collective energy, more than any individual effort, that was praise-worthy.
"Really proud of our guys. I thought they played with a great sense of purpose and togetherness," Sendek said. "We had a terrific week of practice and I was really pleased with the way the guys came back, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. It was a fun week of practice. We could feel good about ourselves because of the investment we made."
Rebounding has been a bugaboo for the Sun Devils all season, but they won the battle on the glass 39-29 against a Washington team that leads the Pac-10 in the category. They also were determined to get high percentage looks at the basket more frequently, and were rewarded with 38 foul shots, converting on 30.
"It's a big win for us, especially starting out 0-2, starting out sluggish, to come back and really have kind of a gut check and find out what we're made of and find out if we can really be competitors in this league and we found out we can so it's good for us," Abbott said.
The Sun Devils didn't shoot much better than Washington from the field -- 37.5 percent versus 36 percent -- but the difference from behind the arc, where ASU went 8-of-19 and Washington made just 3-of-14, and at the free throw line, where the Huskies converted just 12-of-21 led to a comfortable win for the home team.
"They have great balance," Sendek said. (Quincy) Pondexter comes in averaging over 20 and (Isaiah) Thomas at 18, they do a great job of getting to the free throw line. They were averaging 28 free throw attempts per game because they're so aggressive in transition, off the bounce, in the post and on the glass. They get 40 percent of their missed shots back. So to play defense against them you've got to be good across the board. Let's face it, they came into this game averaging over 82 points a game."
Washington started the game cold from the field, missing their first nine shots, but the Sun Devils couldn't score much early either, and it was an 8-6 ASU lead nearly halfway into the first half. From there, Abbott and Kuksiks hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Washington couldn't get closer than six points the rest of the way.
To start the second half, ASU went on an 8-2 run keyed by two Kuksiks 3-pointers and a dunk on a 65 foot lead pass by senior Derek Glasser to stretch the lead to 36-21. The Sun Devils eventually led by as much as 19 points on two separate occasions with the Huskies never cutting it back to single digits.
Thomas had 20 points and Pondexter, who came in averaging 21.3 points, had nine.
Abbott said he knew a quality performance was coming based on the qualify week of practice that led up to the game.
"We had a lot of hard practices and a lot of energy," Abbott said. "We could have been down all week but we had a lot of good practices this week. We were going really hard at each other, really trying to get better. Midway through the week I knew it was a turnaround, I knew we had a shot."