It was James Harden Night at Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday, but aside from a few fake beards scattered throughout the crowd, it was hard to tell based on the lack of energy and excitement in the building. In fact, for the first ten minutes of the game, the atmosphere in Wells Fargo seemed more like the Hayden Library on a Friday night.
In honor of the former Sun Devil, who coincidentally scored a career-high 46 points on Wednesday against his former Oklahoma City Thunder team, the ASU student section pledged to remain silent until the Sun Devils scored their thirteenth point of the game, which of course represents the number Harden wears now for the Houston Rockets and sported in his playing days at Arizona State.
Despite struggling early out of the gate against Washington State (11-16, 2-12), just as they did in Pullman last month against the Cougars, the Sun Devils and their raucous student section came to life when Carrick Felix drained a corner three pointer with 10:07 remaining in the first half, igniting a 20-5 run by ASU over the next six minutes.
"I was confused," said Felix afterwards about the silence to start the game. "I didn't know what was going on. It was awkward at first, I was like, 'Are we bringing no energy? Does the crowd not like what we're doing?' But it was fun. At 13 points I guess they were doing a tribute to James and his beard, so that was pretty cool."
"I'm thinking to myself, this is the quietest arena I've ever been in," added Sendek. "There's no energy, there's no spirit. I only found out after the game that the students had this pact, that they weren't going to erupt until we scored our 13th point in honor of James."
After breaking the silence and summoning the student section's support, the Sun Devils were led by Felix and freshman Jahii Carson, who combined to score 24 of the team's 36 first half points. Carson provided the exclamation mark when he was able to split the Cougar defense, getting into the lane and throwing down his first dunk of the year in front of the home crowd, sending the student section once again into a (riot).
"It was about time I got one here," Carson acknowledged. "I've been waiting to get one here and I saw it and said, 'Oh yeah, I've got to take that. I don't want anyone on my head for not dunking at home.'"
Felix recorded his 11th double-double of the season, totaling 23 points on 7-11 shooting, including 3-5 from behind the three point line and 6-7 free throws, to go along with 11 rebounds. It ties Felix for fourth all-time on the school's list for double-double's in a season with notable Sun Devils like Jeff Pendergraph, Awvee Storey and Ike Austin.
"Once again Carrick was nothing short of spectacular," said Sendek. "Just the energy that he's playing with is incredible."
Carson finished 21 points on 7-12 shooting, including a perfect 6-6 from the charity stripe, and had five assists in the win.
"The thing about those two guys is they love to play," said Sendek of Carson and Felix. "Guys who play with energy are typically guys who love to play. Just being around Jahii and Carrick you get the feeling that they just love to play. They're a little bit like basketball's version of Ernie Banks. They just enjoy being out there."
Despite leading by as many as 21 points in the second half, the Cougars were able to trim the Arizona State (20-7, 9-5) lead down to just eight in the game's closing minutes. Fortunately, the Sun Devils were unusually solid from the free throw down the stretch, keeping Washington State from drawing any closer as time ran out. The Sun Devils shot 15-18 overall from the free throw line, a welcomed change for a team who has struggled for most of the season to knock down its foul shots.
"It felt good," remarked Felix. "That's definitely something that we've been working on, so to finally see progress at the free throw line was good for us because those free throws could have potentially put Washington State in a position to come back, so it was definitely good for us to knock those down."
For the Sun Devils, it marks the fourth time in Sendek's seven years in Tempe that the team has won 20 or more games in a season. In the 25 years before his arrival at Arizona State, the team had only won 20 or more games three times in its history. Coming off consecutive down years, it's a sigh of relief for the team and its coach, but with four games still on the schedule, Felix understands there's still work to be done.
"It's definitely amazing but it says a lot about this team, says a lot about the guys and the coaching staff and it's something we set forth to do this year," he said. "I just thank the coaching staff and the players for playing hard. We wouldn't be in this spot if everybody weren't all in."
"We're not going to stop now," added the senior. "We have an opportunity to go to the tournament and that's our goal right now. But we still want to stay in the present day. We've got a big game this Saturday against Washington and it's going to be a good one."