The Arizona State (5-2) basketball program has a saying. It reads, "things are never as good or as bad as they seem." At no time or place was that statement more true than tonight against UNLV (4-2). After dropping two games in Kansas City to Maryland and Alabama, then sneaking past Colgate, the Sun Devils took care of business, defeating the Runnin' Rebels 77-55 despite an early scare.
Down 21-6 with 13:06 to play in the first half, the maroon and gold looked like they were in for another long night as ASU started the night 1 of 6 from the field. After a timeout the team came out and played unselfishly, mounting a 31-16 run into the halftime break.
"We were really pleased with the way our guys kept their poise and composure when we fell behind by 15 early and they had the discipline they needed to stick to the game plan," head coach Herb Sendek said.
The second half offered more of the same from the Sun Devils, which pulled away as it went along. The maroon and gold stepped up their defensive efforts, not allowing a made three-pointer in the second half while the Runnin' Rebels shot just 8 of 33 from the field. Sendek said it allowed the offense to open up.
"We're predominantly a motion team, which means we're not calling plays, our team has the ability within a framework to make plays," Sendek said. "But there are instances where we've really tried to help them a little bit more."
Kodi Justice earned the start after missing Colgate with back spasms and dropped 13 points and six assists in 30 minutes of play.
"It was great. With the team being so unselfish it made my role a lot easier," Justice said.
Helping Justice was much-improved junior forward Eric Jacobsen who notched his second career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds. Justice, who went to Dobson High School and Jacobsen, who prepped at Hamilton, are both from the Phoenix area.
"I wouldn't say its a point of pride," Justice said. "But we do like fighting for our hometown and just being here together."
Jacobsen upped his game in the middle of the first half, playing a more physical brand of basketball that Sun Devil fans haven't seen from him. Entering this season, Jacobsen had played in 64 games and averaged 8.8 minutes, 2.1 points and 1.8 rebounds. This season, he is now averaging 11.3 points and 8.3 boards and 34 minutes per game. His ability to stay composed with shot fakes in the paint was a key reason the Sun Devils mounted a comeback
"We just got to keep fighting, keep the energy up and keep playing our way of basketball and not getting into their sloppy play," Jacobsen said. "We just got to stay disciplined."
Justice started his second game of the young season and provided a needed calming presence at the point guard spot. It's what he played in high school and a place he prefers to be on the court. While the starting role is far from locked down for him, Sendek felt confident in his play.
"I thought Kodi Justice took another step in the right direction as a young emerging guard for us," Sendek said. "Certainly Kodi continues to gain confidence and play better and better. He was terrific tonight, what can you say?"
The Sun Devils continue to spread the ball around well with 19 assists on 27 made baskets and shooting 43.5 percent for the game. The maroon and gold also out-rebounded UNLV 46 to 32. ASU will face Texas A&M Saturday at 12 p.m. MT on the SEC Network.
"We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but in terms of a team that's easy to cheer for, that we can all be proud of, that I love being in the gym with? This group has been as good as we've had," Sendek said. " I can honestly tell you on December 3rd, we haven't had one day where one guy hasn't had less than a good attitude."