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Defense wins championships (and games on the road against ranked Pac-10 opponents)

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A lot of virtual ink has been spilled lauding Klay Thompson's superlative offensive performance, with little wonder -- not only was the performance amazing, it seems even more so for a fan base that has been clamoring for some shooting all year long. (Do you realize he's now 11-for-15 from 3 his last two games? Wowser.)

But like the comeback against Stanford, we'd be incredibly remiss if we didn't spend an equal amount of time praising the defensive effort last night.

It's tough to talk too much strategy since only a handful of us actually saw the game -- you are such a tease, channelsurfing.net! -- but we can start by looking into the statistics. If there was any doubt that the Tony Bennett second-half adjustment magic is back, it's gone now. This is starting to sound like a broken record, but for what I would say is about the fifth time in the last six games, the Cougs performed significantly better in the second half than in the first:

FIRST HALF             Poss: 26   SECOND HALF        Poss: 32
OFF DEF   OFF DEF
Efficiency 104.2 115.8   Efficiency 119.7 78.7
EFG% 47.9% 56.8%   EFG% 58.0% 34.5%
OR% 21.4% 23.1%   OR% 14.3% 16.0%
TO% 11.6% 15.4%   TO% 12.6% 6.3%
FTRoff 16.7% 36.4%   FTRoff 36.0% 31.0%

So what was different in the second half that allowed the Cougs to hold a team with an over 117 adjusted offensive efficienty on the year to just 78.7 efficiency in the second half?

The most publicized reason, of course, was the job DeAngelo Casto did on James Harden. It would have been amazing if a 6-foot-8 freshman forward had done merely a competent job on a 6-foot-5 all-American sophomore guard. But Casto did much more than that.

With 15:46 to go in the game, Harden had just finished abusing Daven Harmeling yet again -- to be fair, Harmeling never stood a chance -- and was in the process of making a pair of free throws to score his fifth and sixth points in the first four-plus minutes of the second half to give the Sun Devils a seven-point lead. His previous four points were on a pair of layups.

“We just thought Harden was starting to get going and take over the game," Bennett said via SportsLink. "We thought there were three or four guys (we had) that could at least match him: Daven (Harmeling) because of his size, perhaps Klay (Thompson), then Klay got in foul trouble, maybe Nik (Koprivica), but kind of our wild card was DeAngelo (Casto)."

So, enter Casto, who had played five nondescript minutes in the first half, for Harmeling, who had failed to produce even a point in his 20 minutes. All the kid did over the final 16 minutes of the game was shadow, harass and otherwise disrupt Harden to the point that he became a virtual non-factor for the Sun Devils. Consider the following, all with Casto guarding him for the remainder of the game:

  • Harden scored just seven points over the final 16 minutes. He had scored 19 in the first 24 minutes of the game.
  • In those 16 minutes, Harden would attempt nine shots. He would make just two, including 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
  • For the first nine-and-a-half minutes Casto guarded him, Harden did not score a point. He finally hit a pair of free throws with 6:15 left, but in that time the Cougs had gone up six.
  • Harden didn't score a field goal on Casto until 4:41 remained.
  • Three times, Harden attempted layups on Casto. Twice, Casto blocked them -- the second at the 4:06 mark. Harden would not attempt another field goal from inside the arc for the rest of the game.
  • Harden's season offensive rating is 118.9, but he finished with just an 85.7 mark against the Cougs. Translated into plain English, the Cougars reduced his average offensive contribution by nearly 30 percent.
  • That 85.7 was his third-lowest offensive rating of the year, and just the third time he'd been held under 100 -- the benchmark for an average offensive performance. Let me say that again: Casto helped make a surefire first team all-American 15 percent worse than an average offensive player.

Now, I'm fully aware that this was a team effort, as it always is with the Bennett pack defense -- look no further than Harden's 10.4 assist rate for the game and contrast it with his 29.6 mark for the season for evidence of the work the other guys were doing. But it starts with the guy on the ball, and Casto was nothing short of a beast fully deserving of the recognition he's receiving.

“That was big. We all know Casto can do that. He has pure athletic ability and he’s a smart defender as well," said Aron Baynes via SportsLink. "He really gets in position and he makes it tough on guys. We can put a lot on him for getting us that win because he really came in and shut Harden down towards the end. He made everything hard for him.”

Just like Kyle Weaver a year ago, he transformed Harden into a mediocre jump shooter who wasn't getting any help from his teammates. Think the comparisons to Weaver are a bit much? Tony Bennett doesn't:

"We used (Casto) a little bit against Sam Young in Newark vs. Pittsburgh, and you could see (he could do it)," Bennett said via SportsLink. "He’s so gifted with his slides and his physicalness, that I thought that was a significant part of the game, no question.” When asked later of Casto could take over the all-around defensive stopper role held the past couple years by Kyle Weaver, Bennett responded, “defensively, ya, certainly in that matchup (tonight).”

But it wasn't just a one-man show. The rest of the team did an outstanding job limiting the other guys who could have hurt them.

There's no doubt Nikola Koprivica has been in our doghouse for a while now, but consider what he did in playing the final 18 minutes of the game, all of it guarding Rihards Kuksiks. All he did was hold a 50 percent 3-point shooter to just 1-of-6 from the arc in the second half. I know Kuksiks simply missed some shots, but I also know that Nik made him work. Beyond that, Koprivica didn't kill us on offense, only taking one shot and committing one turnover while picking up two assists and three defensive rebounds. That is what we need from him.

And how about the job Aron Baynes did on Jeff Pendergraph? He held Pendergraph to just one, lonely little point in the second half, while scoring 10 himself. Additionally, he gave up just one offensive rebound in the second half to Pendergraph -- an offensive rebounding percentage of 4.0. Pendergraph is averaging 10 percent on the season.

The bottom line is that while the offense is making all the headlines today, it was the defense that really made this thing happen. And if we bring this kind of defensive effort on Saturday, we will beat Arizona. Probably handily.