Led by the steady and splendid play of freshman point guard Jahii Carson and the continued improvement of junior center Jordan Bachynski, Arizona State was able to overcome a lethargic start and halftime deficit to rally past Cornell and remain perfect for the season with a 3-0 record.
Coming off a 97-point outburst in their previous game on Sunday, Arizona State looked more like a team poised to become an offensive threat playing in an up-tempo system that Sun Devils have longed for in Tempe.
On Tuesday, they more closely resembled the slow prodding team that has struggled the last two years. ASU managed to shoot just 28 percent in the first half against Cornell, consistently settling for the three point shot - ASU shot 8-27 from three point range for the game, including 3-18 in the first half - while failing to establish an inside presence like they had in their previous two games.
"We usually come out to a great tip-off, I don't know what happened today," Carson said after the game. "I know a lot of guys were missing shots that they normally make, but they were good shots. I just think we were starting to get down on ourselves when we started to miss shots but in the second half our momentum got going and we started hitting some shots and we started to get energy flowing."
After struggling to find any rhythm offensively throughout the first half, the Sun Devils faced a six point deficit heading into halftime to the stingy Big Red before Carson drained a pull-up three pointer as the buzzer sounded, pulling ASU within three points and providing hope that they could make a run in the second half, provided they could re-gain their form from last week on both ends of the floor.
"He (Sendek) said we were kind of stagnant on offense," Carson commented. "We were getting out-hustled on loose ball plays, 50-50 plays and that we actually got out-rebounded. We only had three offensive rebounds in the first half and we want to get, like, 12 or 13 offensive rebounds and get out and go.
“He said one of the reasons why we couldn’t push the basketball was because we weren't getting stops. When we can't get stops, we can't push the basketball and get out and get easy lay-ups like we like to do."
The Sun Devils opened up the second half with smothering defense while consistently feeding the ball into the paint for Bachynski to work himself into the flow of the game.
Playing with renewed energy and focus behind their frontcourt and backcourt leaders, ASU quickly regained the lead in the half's opening minutes and failed to relinquish it as they battled for the win.
"Cornell is a very scrappy team," Sendek said. "I think they play really hard. Their program knows how to win. They're a couple seasons removed from the Sweet Sixteen. I thought our guys hung in there and battled on a night where we obviously struggled to make shots from the perimeter and the free throw line.
"I thought we came out with really good energy to start the second half, which was the first time we had done that. In the previous two games, our opponents took the upper-hand to start the second half. Jahii gave us momentum with the three -pointer going into the breaking then our guys really spring boarded from there."
The Sun Devils used a full court defensive press on the Big Red to disrupt the flow of the game and to increase the tempo. On Tuesday, the Sun Devils forced Cornell into committing 23 team turnovers, a number of which led to easy baskets for ASU, quickly turning the momentum of the game in their favor in the second half.
"We definitely to try to speed the game up when we press like that, get the guys tired and see how much shape they're in and I think they get a little fatigued and then we start to bury them when they're on defense, getting open shots because they can't play as hard," said Carson. "They were playing deny defense so they couldn't play as hard dent defense after we sped them up with the press."
"We thrive off energy, so when we get stops and get rebounds and the big guy is getting blocks, I just think everybody's energy level gets elevated and that's how we bury teams."
Carson carried the load for the Sun Devils in the second half, finishing with 21 points on 11-14 shooting from the free throw line while also dishing out four assists. It was the second consecutive game with 20 or more points for Carson, who despite sitting out last year, seems to be taking over the reins of the team early in the season as the team learns to play together, especially late in the game as Carson repeatedly made his way to the free throw to ice the victory for the Sun Devils.
"I like to try getting a lot of energy going in the last five minutes," Carson remarked. "I think that's the crunch time moment where we can buy teams or teams can bury us, and we don't want to get buried, so I try to take over the game a little bit defensively and try to attack when I have the ball offensively.
“My teammates know that can get us going and I can get everyone else going and once everybody else is getting going, I think we're dangerous. I just try to be in attack mode the last five minutes to seal the game."
And when he wasn't handling the scoring load himself, Carson was certainly creating for his teammates, helping them stay involved in the game.
Bachysnki finished with 8 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks - moving him up to eighth on the school record list for blocked shots with 83 - as he flirted with a triple-double for the second time this season. Senior Carrick Felix chipped in 10 points to go along with 4 rebounds and 4 steals while sophomore shooter Jonathan Gilling added 9 points, 6 rebounds and 4 steals of his own in the win.
Carson knows that as he goes, so do the Sun Devils, yet it's also up to him to find ways to keep his teammates involved, especially as teams try to counter the Sun Devil offensive attack.
On Tuesday, Cornell attempted to hedge on the high screens between Carson and Bachynski, while showing help defense on the center down low.
"Now that some teams are starting to show and starting to switch, sometimes they got caught up on the switch and I'm going to have start knocking down the open three," Carson explained. "I'm going to have to start lobbing it up to the big and he's going to finish, so it depends on how the defense is playing. If they're playing me like they were playing me tonight, I like to try getting in the paint and finding Evan and Jon and Chris and Carrick on the wings and capitalize on those mistakes."
With their win over Cornell, the Sun Devils improved to 6-0 all-time versus Ivy League schools and to 3-0 on the year for the first time since the 2009-10 season. The competition level becomes significantly more challenging for Arizona State as they face Arkansas on Friday in Las Vegas as part of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational, followed by either Wisconsin or Creighton who will match up in the other contest of that tournament.
"I feel good about it," said Sendek on his team's performance so far this season. "I think it's been a great start for us; good momentum. We obviously face a great challenge this weekend. It's going to be perfectly timed for our team to tell us more about ourselves but I think we've gotten out of the gates exactly how we wanted to."