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January 13, 2011Though they were the same players wearing the same jerseys and holding court in the same arena, they looking nothing like the team they'd been in last week. At least for a half.
Fifteen games into the season, Arizona State had failed to score 40 points in the first half even once. They couldn't do it against Houston Baptist, a 1-12 team ranked among the bottom five in the nation's RPI, or Gardner-Webb, a 4-12 team that isn't much better.
In their opening Pac-10 homestand, the Sun Devils got blitzed by Stanford last Thursday. Less than a week later, in a rare non-league mid-season game they beat Tulsa -- a team that defeated Stanford by 12 earlier this season and has won 20-plus games in four straight seasons -- Wednesday in the same building 69-59 after opening a 45-25 halftime advantage.
"It was big, not only for the win but the way we all played together," said senior guard Ty Abbott, who had 20 points in the first half and hit seven of his first 10 3-pointers. " We haven't really had a game where guys were clicking. We had guys from all areas from (sophomore center) Ruslan (Pateev) to (sophomore guard) Marcus (Jackson) up top and (sophomore wing) Carrick (Felix) and I, we were all playing and in sync, that was one of the most in sync games we've had."
With a game at rival Arizona on Saturday and ASU 1-3 in Pac-10 play, it couldn't have come at a better time. The win improved the Sun Devils to 9-7 overall but more importantly gave them some munch needed confidence.
"I think it was really important," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "I think our team is a team that right now can use a boost. We obviously have been kicked in the teeth a number of times, so I thought it was really good."
Though Abbott scored 25 points and Felix had 21 in what looked to be his best game thus far as a Sun Devil, both players said their most valuable player on the night was Jackson, a walk-on who earned his first ever career and played 35 minutes, 20 more than his career high Saturday against Cal.
Jackson only took one shot -- he made it -- and finished with three points, four assists and four rebounds, but what won't show up in the stat sheet are the two charges he took and the praise he earned from Sendek for his consistently solid showing on the defensive end.
"He was big," Abbott said. "Bigtime. I can't say enough about him, I'm so proud of him. He came out, he was all over. He was diving on the floor, he was taking charges, he was finding guys open. He was the player of the game definitely, without a doubt."
With senior starter Jamelle McMillan out for the third straight game due to a groin strain, Sendek eventually decided to give Jackson a look. It's turned into more of a stare, as Sendek said he didn't want to take Jackson out of the game even as he was developing cramps in the later stages.
"He has a nice way about him," Sendek said. "It's easier to not be nervous when you're focused on the right things; when you're focused on team-centered things, when you're focused on helping your teammates, when you have a habit of having a great attitude. When all those things are in place, when you're focused on the right things, it's easier to not be nervous I think. When you prepare the right way it's easier to not be nervous."
The Sun Devils weren't able to keep up their torrid pace in the second half, allowing Tulsa to inch just inside of the double digit lead they held almost throughout with just under one minute left in the game, but by then it'd long been decided.
"The biggest difference tonight, if you want to know the truth, is we made shots," Sendek said. "At least in the first half, we didn't do it in the second half. You saw everything tighten up. But we made shots. Ty was spectacular. He played like the first-team all-conference guard that he earned last year and he clearly carried the torch for our basketball team. It gave everyone a boost of confidence, it propelled I think even our defensive energy. It's amazing what putting the ball in the basket will do for you."