There are many interesting statistics from yesterday’s Arizona State-UCLA basketball game in Tempe, Arizona. For example, ASU (16-4, 5-2 Pac-12) shot 46.9 percent on the day. The Sun Devils outrebounded UCLA 53-33. And they limited the Bruins to just 29 percent shooting in the second half. Arizona State now moves into third place in the Pac-12 conference.
None of that matters much, as far as this article is concerned.
The drive, determination and, yes, emotion exhibited by the Sun Devils at Wells Fargo Arena provide the real news here. They’re the back-story of a program that has emerged as a legitimate contender for the Pac-12 title and could earn its first NCAA tournament berth since 2009.
Consider how emotion shaped the outcome of Saturday’s game:
ASU senior wingman Carrick Felix had his worst outing of the season a week ago versus rival Arizona. He was limited to just five points and had seven turnovers. Against UCLA, however, Felix exploded for 23 points and 11 rebounds, and provided strong defense on Bruins leading scorer Shabazz Muhammad.
Think this wasn’t a statement game for Felix?
Sun Devil center Jordan Bachynski started the 2012-2013 season on a much-improved note, refining his shooting, shot-blocking and rebounding skills. Bachynski posted a triple-double against Cal-State Northridge on Dec. 8 and gained recognition as one of the rising big men on the West coast.
But in recent games, Bachynski had seemed tentative. Some even described his play as “soft.”
Those proved to be fighting words for the 7’2” junior from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who terrorized the Bruins with career highs of 22 points, 15 rebounds, and six blocks.
Shooting guard Evan Gordon has been criticized for inconsistency during his career at ASU. Fans have seen plenty of potential in the talented junior from Indianapolis, Indiana, but more often than not, he’s been overshadowed by other players in critical games.
Not so on Saturday.
Gordon, coming off a 28-point night against USC, had a hot hand early in the UCLA contest, joining freshmen point-guard Jahii Carson — ASU’s field general on the court — in propelling the Sun Devil offense to another solid performance.
Herb Sendek had heard the murmuring. With back-to-back seasons of 12 and 10 wins, respectively, he had yet to take Arizona State basketball to the next level. More was expected out of the 49-year-old coach from average folks in the seats — not to mention influential boosters.
Squaring off against UCLA, Sendek may have put in his finest coaching performance since arriving in Tempe. His team was poised, motivated and well prepared, jumping on the Bruins from the opening tip-off and never letting up.
“Our guys defensively were really locked in mentally, good attention to detail, and played with a lot of effort,” Sendek said. “They had a lot of energy and tremendous heart.”
UCLA (16-5, 6-2 Pac-12) had a right to be confident about the second game of its Grand Canyon State road trip. Coach Ben Howland’s squad had dispatched perennial national power Arizona 84-73 two days earlier, and looked forward to receiving a Top 25 ranking.
Not so fast.
The Bruins looked listless — perhaps even confused — against the scrappy Sun Devils. They trailed by double-digits the entire second half and never made a serious run at the lead during the game’s closing moments.
Finally, there was the Sun Devil nation itself — restless for a big hoops victory after the 71-54 manhandling by Arizona, and angry at UCLA for depriving its football team of a shot at this year’s Pac-12 South title.
To pour salt on the wound, the Bruins had just stolen a key gridiron recruit from Arizona State’s own backyard.
A crowd of 9,337 showed up at Wells Fargo to cheer and cajole the home team, and vent their frustrations on the visitors from Westwood. Even ASU football coach Todd Graham and quarterback Taylor Kelly stopped by to join ASU students in the revelry. It was a feel-good moment that happens all-too-infrequently in this arena.
Sports writers have a tendency to dwell on facts and figures when assessing a big game. That’s understandable, since statistics help us understand what went right—or wrong—in the competition.
Sometimes, though, the actual story of a sporting event can be found in the hearts and minds of its participants and spectators. That’s the true lesson from Arizona State’s upset defeat of UCLA.