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ASU outplays UCLA at end, and beginning

1/26/2013

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State was trying to politely run the clock down, with Evan Gordon dribbling aimlessly at the top of the key in the final seconds of a would-be rout of UCLA, when Jordan Adams swiped the ball and headed downcourt for a meaningless dunk.

Carrick Felix wasn’t having it. He followed Adams and, at the last second, blocked the shot from behind. The game ended with the Sun Devils stomping the Bruins 78-60, that final play all but summing up the effort for both teams.

Afterward, both Adams and Felix said the same thing -- that they were taught to play until the final buzzer sounded.

The thing is only one team decided to play when the first buzzer sounded in the desert -- and that was Arizona State.

The Sun Devils all but mopped the floor with a UCLA team that many (present company included) thought was ready to reclaim its position as preseason darling.

Instead, one game after a Gucci performance against Arizona, the Bruins played more like a cheap knockoff.

They were oddly flat and lifeless, equal opportunity awful on offense (shooting 34.7 percent for the game) and defense (allowing ASU to shoot 46.9 percent) and wiped clean on the boards 49-29.

“They really outplayed us," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They really played well today, and we didn’t. You have to give them credit."

In this case, the otherwise-boring coachspeak has a point.

You do have to give the Sun Devils credit, not just for this game but for this entire season.

The vultures were circling over Tempe in the fall, waiting to pounce on coach Herb Sendek as soon as this season expired. Back-to-back seasons with 12 and 10 wins, respectively, warmed his seat much more than the desert sun.

Arizona State was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 this season, which seemed neither unfair nor unreasonable considering the lack of recent accomplishment.

Now the Sun Devils are sitting third, 5-2 in the conference and 16-4 overall. Regardless of how Arizona State fares next week in Washington, it will have a winning record at the Pac-12 halfway point for the fourth time in the past 18 seasons.

In a conference desperate for someone aside from the established three (Oregon, UCLA and Arizona) to assert itself, the Sun Devils are building a case.

In "Three Little Pigs" parlance, it’s a case built on sticks -- slightly better than straw but not as solid as bricks. There’s not much beside this victory to bulk up an NCAA tournament résumé, but there is at least the semblance of a foundation.

“I’ve been at this a long time, so I know how fragile this all is," Sendek said. “You can look great one day and then be absolutely awful before the next TV timeout. I think this team has a sense of confidence, but in no way are they getting carried away by it."

The game plan to beat UCLA wasn’t complicated. Without Travis Wear (out with concussion-like symptoms after a blow to the head against Arizona), the Sun Devils wisely pounded the ball inside. The Bruins were equal parts unable and unwilling to stop them, allowing Jordan Bachynski to score a career-high 22 to lead a 46-26 edge in the paint. (Felix added a game-high 23.)

The catch for Arizona State is the same as it is everywhere else in the country: There is a pandemic of inconsistency sweeping college basketball.

The one thing you can count on this season is that the court dimensions won’t change. Other than that, it’s anarchy. This season is wildly and, at times, inexplicably unpredictable. ASU has to try to avoid the roller-coaster flu.

The win here was big, especially partnered with a nice overtime victory Thursday against USC. But a trip to Washington State and Washington looms, and well, who knows how that will go?

Ask UCLA. Just two nights ago, the Bruins were touting their ability to bounce back after losing to Oregon, pointing to the victory against Arizona as a sign of their maturity and growth.

How’s that looking about now?

The Sun Devils sounded all the right notes after the win.

“I don’t know that it’s necessarily sending a message," Felix said. “The Pac-12 is a very good league, and every team is going to come to play every night. You have to sure you match that and come ready."

Saying it and doing it are two different things, just like playing until the final buzzer and playing from the opening one.