On Saturday they gave ASU everything they could handle. North Dakota State guard Mike Felt silenced the crowd briefly with a game-tying three point heave with 1.8 seconds, silencing the Sun Devil faithful as it had appeared Arizona State had allowed another pesky opponent to hang for too long once again. And then, the unthinkable happened as ASU went the length of the court for the game-winning shot as the final horn sounded.
Sophomore Chanse Creekmur, who returned after missing the team's last game with a hamstring injury, contributed eight points while securing three timely rebounds, inbounded the ball from under the team's own basket and connected on a three quarter length pass to Trent Lockett. Lockett, without any hesitation, found a wide open Felix streaking down the sideline for the final three of his team-high 15 points on the afternoon. It was just the way they drew it up in the huddle, really.
"Coach drew it up in the huddle and after the whistle we knew we had to execute," Felix recalled. "It (his winning shot) felt pretty good. I already felt like I was going to make the shot before even took it."
"The guys did a perfect job of executing," said Head Coach Herb Sendek after the game. "It's something that we have in our arsenal and we reminded them of their roles and positioning during the timeout and they did a great job of executing. I mean everything has to go right. If the pass isn't perfect, the kick out isn't on time, if the shot doesn't go in...all three things have to be perfect with 1.8 seconds." "First, we had a former, outstanding high school quarterback, Chanse Creekmur, make a perfect pass," said Sendek of the play. "And I thought Trent used tremendous basketball instincts to pass to Carrick. He might have been able to make a play, but he made a better play and then Carrick makes the big shot."
Felix, who struggled mightily from the outside last year, has been much more improved this season. The game-winning bucket was his third three pointer of the game, and arguably the biggest of his career, so far.
"I think Carrick is in position to make that play today because of the incredible work he's put into shooting," said Sendek. "If you think back to him as a shooter a year ago to where he is today, he's got to be among the most improved shooters in the country. Now when he takes a three I have great confidence it's going in."
Felix credited his tireless work in the off-season to his improve three-point shooting which obviously came to crescendo on Saturday against North Dakota State.
"I got a lot of confidence from my teammates who encouraged me," Felix acknowledged. "They always pushed me to shoot the ball. I felt like we all worked hard (in the off-season) for this and we are going to continue to get better."
While Felix was the hero who hit the final shot, the Sun Devils wouldn't even have been in any position to win without the effort of sophomore Kyle Cain, who continues to improve as the season progresses. Cain chipped in 14 points and 13 rebounds, his second consecutive double-double, as he led the Sun Devil attack.
"I think when Kyle plays to his strengths and he's just comfortable with his own game, he's really effective," commented Sendek. "Kyle is somebody who has to play with a motor. He's somebody who has to pursue every rebound as if it has his name on it. I think our team is very conscientiously trying to get the ball inside to get him more touches.
"So I think the way our team is laid out right now as things have evolved, certainly different than we thought they'd be over the summer, we're very conscious of trying to get the ball close to the basket and I think he's benefitting from that approach."
Helping out Cain on the glass was junior Trent Lockett, who once again filled up the stat sheet with 10 points and 12 rebounds despite being hobbled by a sore groin. As a team the Sun Devils out-rebounded the Bison 45-32, minimizing second chance points in the tight contest.
For a team that struggled at the free throw line last year, the Sun Devils made 25 of their 35 attempts on Saturday. Nobody stepped more from the charity stripe than Cain, who was able to convert 10 of his 14 free throw attempts, including some big ones late in the second half.
"It's great to see Kyle developing into such a great free throw shooter," said Sendek. "Last year, for the whole year, he was eleven for twenty-five. And he has the courage to shoot it unconventionally, which is something we've talked about, and he's so much better in that area."
While the Sun Devils struggled with their own offensive woes on Saturday, they also kept the North Dakota State guessing by switching out of the traditional zone defense to some man to man, looking to apply some pressure against the athletically inferior Bison. While they were unsuccessful at forcing turnovers, the Sun Devils held NDSU to 36% shooting from the field, and only 3-21 from behind the three point line.
"Just analyzing the game briefly, our three point defense finally took a turn for the better, both in our zone and in our man," commented Sendek. "Not that our zone was ineffective, I mean in the first half they scored 26 points on 37% from the field, but we just thought perhaps if we came out in the press and fell back to man to man it would help energize our team and get us off to a good start.
"We always break the game down into four minute increments, and one of the four minute increments that we haven't been as good is the first four minutes of the second half."
Despite their shortcomings, namely turnovers - ASU committed 16 on the afternoon - and shooting, the Sun Devils still managed to get a much needed win. For a team that recently found out they'll be without their star freshman point guard and coming off a difficult loss, it was a step in the right direction and something to build from.
"Still our turnovers are way too high and really don't give us any margin for error," Sendek said . "Today, North Dakota State did a tremendous job taking care of the ball with six, and we plundered with sixteen. But all in all, it was a good win against a team that came in 7-1, and our guys have been engaged with finals and working hard, so it was a good and timely win for us."