The Arizona State Sun Devils fell to the Sacramento State Hornets 66-63 in a season-opening thriller that saw the Sun Devils come up just short as time expired Friday night.
Sacramento State Guard Cody Demps led the Hornets with 22 points, including the go-ahead three from downtown to put the Hornets (1-0) ahead in the final minute and then two made free throws to secure the win.
"We got to be able to put teams away," ASU center Eric Jacobsen said. "We let them hang around and they got too comfortable and when you do that guys are going to make shots. We just got too stagnant and we didn't look to attack enough and when teams are going like that we got to pick them apart."
The Sun Devils (0-1) started off the first half with fire in their step and came out with energy and speed that was uncharacteristic of any start last season before fizzling into a sloppy display by the end of the first half.
"It was not the way I wanted to start things here for sure," ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. "It was an embarrassing loss for us and I just think we have to execute better. I thought we played a little bit nervous in the first half for some reason and we're just having issues with simple things like catching the ball and it became infectious and it carried over into how we shot the ball in the first half of the game. Obviously anytime you shoot that way from the free throw line you're not going to have very much success. "
Newcomer Andre Spight joined returning point guard Tra Holder, shooting guard Gerry Blakes, forward Willie Atwood and Jacobsen in the starting lineup and had the fastest legs on the court next to Blakes despite his struggle from the field all night.
The backcourt took advantage of the new 30-second shot clock to find Jacobsen at the post then to a driving Blakes to notch the first points of the game. ASU began the half outrebounding Sacramento State on the offensive boards but was outrebounded 9-3 on offense by the end of the half.
Despite the strength the Sun Devils started out with, the story of the first half was one of missed opportunities. ASU's defensive effort started out strong and a crowd-pleasing, baseline, reverse dunk by a triple-teamed Savon Goodman got the momentum started for ASU.
Once the Hornets found their stride from the perimeter and the Sun Devils let up inside the paint, the game quickly turned into a much closer contest. A pair of Hornet bankers put Sacramento State within two with nine minutes left making the score 17-15 ASU.
The Sun Devils were sorely missing their three point marauders from last year in Jonathan Gilling, Bo Barnes and Shaquielle McKissic. ASU was 0-for-8 in the first half from behind the arc and shot only 36 percent from the field.
Sacramento State took the first lead of the game on a corner three that put the Hornets up 23-20 with 4:40 left in the half. The Sun Devils did a solid job drawing the foul on the night but couldn't take advantage with too many missed charity points.
"We lost containment of the ball too much," Hurley said. "Guys were able to get into the paint too easily and I'd like to say that our defense was awful but I don't think that was the problem tonight. Obviously they score too many times in the last two minutes and they were able to make big shots but I thought our issues were more at the offensive end. Just some decision making things on offense with our turnovers and then not making free throws or knocking down our shots."
With just under four minutes to play, Sacramento State capped off a 9-2 run over the Sun Devils with a layup by Hornet guard Marcus Graves that allowed them to carry the momentum the remainder of the half. The Hornets went into the locker room up 29-23 over ASU with only one Sun Devil (Gerry Blakes) in double-digit points with 11.
ASU was able to pick up its production from the perimeter in the second half behind unlikely hero Willie Atwood, shooting 48.1 percent from the field and nearly doubled its free throw percentage.
"Overall, I thought we were more aggressive and attacked better in the second half and tried to get to the rim, which in the first half we settled a lot for outside jump shots, Hurley said"
Atwood finished the game with a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds) next to three other players (Jacobsen, Blakes and Holder) who ended the game in double figures in points.
"Willie is no surprise that he had 11 and 11 because he's been playing at a high level since I've been here," Hurley said. "He works at it every day and works at his game and has a great attitude and wants to have a great season this year so he played really well."
The improvement in shooting was not enough to overcome the struggles on defense however. Holder had trouble guarding Graves who blew past him all night to find the basket and accumulate 20 points to fuel his team to victory.
The Sun Devils abounded on their own 9-2 run over the Hornets in the second half to make it 47-38 ASU with 11 minutes left in regulation, at which point a layup by Demps was the spark that ignited an offensive counter-surge by the Hornets which would slowly diminish ASU's lead.
With just under three minutes left in regulation, the game was notched at 56 apiece, and the Hornets attacked a foul-laden ASU frontcourt to sneak ahead in the final minutes. Both Holder and Blakes battled to the end in an effort to put their team atop but Sun Devils were outrebounded 41-34 on the glass and Demps couldn't miss to give Sacramento State enough power to stay ahead to the finish.
"Hats off to Sacramento State," Hurley said. "They made some big plays down the stretch of the game and they hit some big shots and we weren't able to make enough plays down the stretch to win."
This is Sacramento State's first win against the Sun Devils in its series history. ASU goes on to face the Belmont Bruins on Monday in Wells Fargo Arena at 8 p.m.