The Arizona State coaches knew they had a tall order Tuesday afternoon. The Sun Devils were facing a team that has won at least 29 games and made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons. On top of that, the game tipped off at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday and it was the final game before their holiday break.
Another test passed for the Sun Devils as they topped Stephen F. Austin 80-73 in front of 4,373 fans at Wells Fargo Arena.
"We were telling our guys 'you don't want to be the first to Christmas,'" assistant coach Rashon Burno said (Bobby Hurley was unavailable to the media after the game due to personal reasons). "We want our guys to understand that is was a 40 minute game. Stephen F. Austin is a scrappy team. Obviously their record speaks for itself. We knew we were in a for a battle."
The Lumberjacks had never lost a game in the month of December under current head coach Brad Underwood (third year) and the team has gone a combined 61-8 over the past two seasons thanks in large part to a press defense that traps and forces opponents into turnovers.
"Their defense was really scrappy," said senior guard Gerry Blakes. "Our coaches just told us to be strong with the ball, make the right reads and attack. Attack what they were bringing to us."
Once again, Arizona State was led by its guards. Blakes poured in 14 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists. Sophomore Tra Holder tallied 18 points, eight rebounds and three assists and 6-11 shooting. Holder has now notched double figures in scoring in five straight games for the first time in his career.
"We always look forward to Tra making big plays because that's what Tra can do," said forward Willie Atwood. "Tra has been creeping on the boards. He is a small guard but he isn't afraid to get in there."
In their last afternoon start, a 98-79 victory over Houston Baptist, the Sun Devils started just 2-13 from the field. It was a different story Tuesday as ASU began the game shooting 4-5 and led 10-2 about three minutes into the game. The Lumberjacks did not grab a rebound until almost eight minutes into the game.
"If you think back to UNLV, I think Tra Holder had nine rebounds, a few down the stretch," said Burno. "Our bigs do such a good job of battling and setting the tone (in the paint). We tell our guards they have to get in and help. Two of the last three games our guards have done a tremendous job of getting back and putting their bodies in plays to try and get loose balls."
After taking a 41-34 lead into halftime, Holder scored eight of ASU's first nine points in the second half to help extend the Sun Devil lead to 50-38 with just over 17 minutes left to play.
"Tra Holder is a great player and he has improved drastically from last year," Blakes said. "He's a big time player and that's what he does. He makes big time plays."
No matter how hard ASU tried, the Lumberjacks would not go away. Stephen F. Austin slowly clawed their way back into the game and trailed by just three points with 5:27 left to play.
Once again, down the stretch Holder made winning plays for his team. The sophomore guard notched two key rebounds, hit two free throws and had one very timely assist on a 3-pointer by Blakes to seal the game for the Sun Devils.
"At the end of the day, we have to be the more physical, more dominant team." Burno said. "Stephen F. Austin is going to challenge you every possession. If you set the tone and exceed it you have a chance to win and our guys know through scouting we have to be the more physical team."
ASU will take a holiday break the rest of this week before wrapping up nonconference play on December 28 against Cal State Bakersfield.