Defense paves the way for bounce back win

On a day when the offense seemed to struggle, the Sun Devils reverted back to their proven formula to gut out a 71-48 win against the Bulldogs from Gardner-Webb University on Saturday.

Having lost a close battle the previous weekend and with six full days to prepare for their opponent, Arizona State made it a point of emphasis to shore up their defense, a staple of Coach Sendek's teams in the desert, as they looked to improve on their non-conference record.

Though the game may have had its share sloppy moments for the maroon and gold, the Sun Devils were able to secure the victory with aggressive, active play on the defensive end.

"I think it was a big thing for us to hold them to 48," said senior Ty Abbot. "We've been struggling defensively, that's been obvious, and we had a good, hard defensive week, and it's good to see that translate to the court."

The week long preparation and practice on defense aided Arizona State as they limited the Bulldogs to just 30% shooting from the field while forcing 17 turnovers to help jump start an offense that had been stagnant thus far this season.

"Defense. That's our focus everyday," harped the senior. "Defense. Rotations. And on the ball defense. All kinds of defensive principles. "

While Abbott may have ked the Sun Devils with 18 points, it was his activity on defense that sparked his team during key stretches of game as he contributed three steals and snagged four rebounds.

"We had a chance to get back to the basics," Abbott commented after the game. "We had some real hard work and not worry about enough rest before the next game. We had about six days there and got some hard work in, some skill-work in, and get some guys in a rhythm."

Head Coach Herb Sendek also noted the effort put forth on defense this week in practice and how it carried over to the game this afternoon.

"We really worked on becoming a team on defense," remarked the coach. "We got caught getting, really, like, every man for themselves too much on defense. We really tried to emphasize the importance of playing good team defense and trying to have each other's backs in a better fashion."

A returning bright spot for Sun Devil fans today was the re-emergence of senior sharp-shooter Rihards Kuksiks, who had been struggling recently while battling an ankle injury. Averaging just 9.7 points per game this season coming into today's contest, Kuksiks showed signs of regaining his touch as he poured in 15 points, netting 4-8 from downtown.

"When you get injured, your confidence goes down," said Kuksiks. "Right now I'm playing more and more minutes, so it's building up my confidence."

Shooting below 40 percent for the season from both inside and outside the three point line, Kuksiks' inconsistency had been a contributing factor the sluggish Sun Devil offense. But while Sun Devils may have worried that their returning leading scorer from last season may have been in a slump, Kuksiks laments that he never lost his confidence despite the struggles.

"I wasn't concerned," he explained, "I was just feeling bad for my guys because I couldn't help them so much, like I can right now. I knew I was going to get better at some point."

And it certainly did for the Sun Devils from behind the three-point line, as the team combined to go 11-24, pacing themselves in key stretches to pad their lead.

Unfortunately, one other ongoing subplot to the season remains an area for concern for this Sun Devils team, and that's the progression of the seven newcomers to the squad. On Saturday, only freshman Kyle Cain made a significant impact on the game, falling just two points shy of another double-double after collecting a game-high 11 rebounds.

"He's definitely one of the hardest workers on the team," said Abbott of his teammate. "He asks all the time what he needs to do, how many rebounds he needs to get. He doesn't want to score. He's really been working hard and it shows."

Finding shots for the other six newcomers was a struggle once more with Chanse Creekmur being the only other to score. It's a growing pain for this team that continues to be addressed in practice and in game situations.

"It's been tough for them," said Abbott. "Just trying to get into a rotation because obviously we're trying to win and you've got to have the guys out there that really know the stuff.

"That's been the biggest thing, having the guys out there that know the stuff and trying to integrate the new guys. That's the balance right there."

Recalling his freshman days, Abbott does not remember it not being as much of an issue for him then, as it is for this group today. Of course, joining Abbott that year in the rotation was current Oklahoma City Thunder guard James Harden, and the steady hand of point guard Derek Glasser.

"It helps a whole lot when you've got Derek and James just driving and kicking," Abbott confessed. "I didn't make my shots contested or too spectacular. I was just in the corner getting open threes. So it wasn't that big of a deal to me.

"It's just something that you've got to feel the flow of the game. We're struggling already a little bit on offense getting shots for guys, but I think that's just them trying to find that easy shot; rushing a little bit."

Coach Sendek commented that it was the steady hand of his veteran players that was able to secure the victory when during the second half; the Bulldogs began to mount a comeback, crawling to within eight. However, baskets by Abbott and Kuksiks stretched the lead back to a comfortable level before the defense settled in once more to seal it up.

"Different guys have had their moments. Different guys have missed practice time here and there because of different injuries. Guys as a whole just have to keep working. Today we were in a tight ball game and our veteran players really have to step up and I thought, for the most part, they really did today."

For today, the Sun Devils can take solace in the fact that they've added another win to their record and have something to build on as they prepare for Nevada next week.

"I thought it was good today," said Abbott. "Obviously there are still some things we can build on but it's a good foundation."


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