Arizona State Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley got his first win ever with the Sun Devils (1-1) Monday, after four players scored in double digits to notch an 83-74 victory over the Belmont Bruins in the Legends Classic in Wells Fargo Arena.
"It's a great feeling to get our season started and to generate a win and to do so against a very good basketball team that has NCAA tournament experience," Hurley said. "To do what we did tonight and to just get back on track and just feel better about the direction that our team is headed right now."
Both teams matched each other's production in the first half of Monday's contest. The Sun Devils came out looking more relaxed than their season-opener against Sacramento State, but still struggled initially to execute on offense, while both teams got into foul trouble early.
ASU had more quantity than quality in its opening shots while Belmont (1-1) got better looks around the perimeter, allowing them to take the early lead. The Bruins were finding open lanes inside while the Sun Devils turned it over in the paint.
Kodi Justice was the trigger to an ASU offense that had been settling for outside shots in the first ten minutes of the game. Justice dished out no-look passes to both forward Savon Goodman and center Eric Jacobsen at the post, both who were able to make moves that sparked the Sun Devils' scoring.
"Kodi made some big shots tonight and he and Gerry handled running the team for stretches tonight," Hurley said. "We believe in Kodi playing minutes like he did tonight. He brings a lot to the table offensively for us."
When Justice wasn't dishing out passes, he was draining threes from the corner and drawing fouls to give ASU the 16-13 lead with 13 minutes left in the half.
The teams were neck-and-neck, posting an identical shooting percentage at 38 percent on 6-for-16 from the field, as well as an identical free throw percentage and steal count (88 percent and three respectively) with eight minutes left in half.
ASU newcomer Andre Spight sparked the only run of the first half with a corner three that elicited a 9-0 run over 2:56 that, in turn, strengthened ASU's defense and held Belmont to 1-and-11 from the field.
"My teammates just found me in the corner," Spight said. "The left corner, that's where I like to spot-up at. It seemed like nothing would fall for me last game and I just felt really good after my first shot went in. The rim opened up for me and then the whole game opened up for me and I was able to find my teammates."
Justice once again kept the drive alive after an acrobatic, cross-court pass to Spight, who knocked down a three from the corner. A behind-the-back save along the baseline on defense put the ball in the hands of wing Maurice O'Field, whose bucket put ASU up 34-26 with just over three minutes to play in the half.
But every time the Sun Devils looked like they were pulling away, they would hand Belmont charity points that would diminish the ten-point lead ASU had created and allow Belmont right back in it. ASU had 13 fouls in the first half of play and went into the locker room up only four, at 36-32 at halftime.
"Tra (Holder), along with a lot of our other guys, was in foul trouble in the first half and I think that's something everybody's going to have to adjust to this year," Hurley said. "It's different than years past in how the games are going to be called closer so we have to adjust to that."
Both teams kept the score close in the second half. The Sun Devils captured the momentum with three, huge stuffs at the basket by Willie Atwood, Jacobsen and Justice, but followed with a lackadaisical effort on the defensive end, allowing the Bruins to either drive uncontested in the lane or hit one from the outside.
With just over four minutes in regulation, Justice stepped up again, picking up the pieces of a shaky ASU defense to hit back-to-back threes to put ASU back on top eight points at 69-61.
Fouls continued to plague ASU late as Goodman and Atwood picked up their fourth fouls, followed by a traveling violation that allowed Belmont back in, making the score 69-68 with under three to play.
But just as it seemed ASU was unraveling and about to hand the lead over in the final minutes as fans saw against Sacramento State, the Sun Devil offense surged behind guard Gerry Blakes who sank a jumper and banked in a layup that proved to be the dagger.
Blakes finished the game with 22 points, fitting on the night of his 22nd birthday.
"What a time to be alive," Blakes joked. "The first day after the loss against Sacramento State was probably one of the toughest practices I've ever had as a basketball player. Anything that we did wrong, whether it was dribble with the left hand when we were supposed to dribble with the right hand, when we're on the line, if you were to do anything that you weren't supposed to do, drop the ball on the catch or run, so those things just make you alert to want to do the right thing all the time. I think the good teams and the great teams and the tournament teams do that all the time so being that that's our goal and aspiration we stuck to it and got after it tonight."
The Sun Devils outnumbered the Bruins 45-31 on the glass, eight on the defensive end from Blakes, and shot 48 percent from the arc behind Spight's team-leading four three-pointers.
"We knew that we couldn't afford to give them multiple possessions from not blocking out and rebounding so we got to finish the possession with the rebound and we knew they would shoot a lot of threes and we talked to our guards about getting the longer rebounds, and Gerry did a great job with that tonight," Hurley said.
The Sun Devils move on to play Kennesaw State in the second game of the Legends Classic Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Wells Fargo Arena.