TEMPE — Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller, as he addressed the team in the locker room after a 71-54 victory over Arizona State, told freshman Brandon Ashley he had good news and he had bad news.
First the good: Ashley turned in the best defensive performance of his young career, helping hound the Sun Devils’ leading scorer, forward Carrick Felix, into a game in which he had more turnovers (seven) than points (five).
“You let the cat out of the bag,” Miller said to him with a smile. “That’s now what you have to do every day and every game.”
Same probably goes for Arizona’s entire defense. The Wildcats set a benchmark for how they need to play for the next two months … and beyond.
ASU shot just 39.1 percent in each half. The Wildcats did not allow a single second-chance point. Felix and 7-2 center Jordan Bachynski — who entered the game combining to average almost 27 points per game — managed to score just eight. The Sun Devils turned the ball over 17 times, one off their season high.
Arizona State’s 54 points were a season low.
“One of the reasons why we ended up winning like we did is our defense really returned to us,” Miller said in his postgame interview.
“For the most part, I thought our defense fueled us. Through 12 non-conference games, that is something we did very well, especially in the biggest games on our schedule. And in today’s game, we defended with a lot of purpose.”
Arizona’s size frustrated Bachynski, who made only 1 of 5 shots. Felix was 1 of 8 from the field, all but one attempt coming from behind the 3-point arc. He didn’t score until making a trey with 15:16 to go.
“U of A is definitely a good team,” Felix said.
“They’re well-coached. I just needed to show up for my team and I didn’t do that today. I had a rough game. They kept telling me to take my shots and stay in the game and keep my head in there but I, as a leader, had to pick it up. Good thing tomorrow’s a new day.”
Tomorrow’s also a day in which Ashley, a 6-8 power forward, can wake up feeling more confident about his defense.
“There are two different types of player he has to guard at his position,” Miller said.
“Some are more inside players, and a lot of face-up players. It’s hard for a freshman, especially with his length, to always be comfortable doing both, but today he guarded on the perimeter excellent. He did it in the first half and he did it in the second half, as well, and in the minutes he played he contributed in a huge way for us.
“Everybody on our team knows that, and it was one of the many reasons why our defense was better today.”