The Arizona State Sun Devils thwarted a late comeback attempt to slide past the No. 18 Texas A&M Aggies 67-54 Saturday night in Wells Fargo Arena.
For head coach Bobby Hurley, this will go down as his first signature win coaching the Sun Devils (6-2).
"Very impressive win for the program tonight," Hurley said. "I'm excited for our players and facing a lot of adversity early in the season with a lot of tough games but I think it's prepared these guys for this moment. It's exciting to beat a ranked opponent at home and it's a win that sends a message that we're getting close to what we're trying to do."
The Sun Devils had some trouble getting inside the paint at the start of the game, bogging down ASU at in the lane and at the post, and causing the Sun Devils to take outside shots that wouldn't fall.
However, fouls diminished an early Aggie lead, causing ASU's slow transition offense that started the game to turn red-hot. Guard Tra Holder, who started alongside Kodi Justice, were the defibrillators of ASU's offense and began ASU's scoring off with a floater at the top of the key.
"It's been his calling-card, Tra, what he's doing down the stretch of games, closing out games," Hurley said. "He's a play-maker and he's playing fearlessly and he's making big shots and he had to handle the ball the majority of time against their pressure and so he's been crucial in trying to get into games."
Points remained sparse from the post but that didn't inhibit an ASU offense that was on fire to also get hot from the perimeter. Justice led the effort, collecting all of his first-half points from behind the arc.
The Sun Devils looked crisp all around the floor Saturday, finding multiple ways to manufacture points when they couldn't get open in the paint.
The scoring went back and forth until the 13-minute mark when Holder faked out three Aggie defenders, to get open in the lane and draw a foul that would spark a 7-0 run over 1:14, punctuated by an Andre Spight three from the corner.
Both teams were strong on the glass and with ten minutes left to play in the half the rebounding was dead even offensively and defensively. However, it was ASU that led in the steals column and who remained small in the turnover column, something that they ended up on the losing side of last season when it cost them the win in College Station.
"Defense was a big goal for us today," Atwood said. "Coach put a lot of defense in us in practice. We pressure each other, go at each other, foul each other but I mean we worked on trying not to foul and trying to be more aggressive getting turnovers and things like that we can make fast points like tonight."
Texas A&M (7-2) climbed its way back in whenever wide-open Aggies were left uncontested on the perimeter as their three-point shot stayed hot the entire first half.
Holder's maniacal ball-handling, though, continued to dismantle a tough A&M defense that caused the charity points to flow for ASU.
"My coaches and teammates instill confidence in me," Holder said. "So when I'm out there I feel comfortable but everybody makes big plays on this team, Willie had a great game, Kodi had the momentum going in the half so it's not just me it's everybody."
With 1:52 left to play in the first half Justice had the ball, dished it out to Holder, who bounced it back to Justice for a nothing-but-net 3-pointer that put his team up 29-17 and left Wells Fargo thundering with Sun Devil pride.
"Just to get the crowd going is my main thing," Justice said. "If I hit a few shots and can get the crowd going with a little of my things I do here and there that's all I'm trying to do so if I can hit a big shot I do."
But Justice wasn't finished there. After an offensive board by forward Savon Goodman that sent Obinna Oleka to the foul line after a post-up move that drew the foul, the ball was back in the cool, calm and collected hands of Justice. He took one step back from his man at the perimeter and unconcernedly sank another three from a point on the floor that was closer to half-court than to the arc.
Wells Fargo Arena erupted again, with the loudest noise fans have seen all season.
The Sun Devils went into the locker room with the momentum clearly on their side and carrying a 14-point lead over the Aggies, something they would not take for granted considering their 11-point lead they blew to lose to the Aggies in their last contest.
But ASU wouldn't let up this time, as Texas A&M continued to put Sun Devils at the charity stripe.
Holder continued to be the offensive force that would push past Aggie defenders to find a lane or draw a foul while Atwood led the scoring effort with three three-pointers of his own. Atwood finished the game leading his team in points with 15.
But the Aggies wouldn't go away quietly. With eight minutes to play, ASU had what seemed to be a sturdy 19-point lead over the Aggies but that lead was quickly diminished due to offensive marauder and guard Alex Caruso, who quickly tacked on five points for his team. Both he and senior guard Danuel House, who finished the game with 17 points of his own, chipped ASU's lead to ten by the three-minute mark.
With 2:50 left to play, ASU led the Aggies 62-52, but had three players — Goodman, Justice and center Eric Jacobsen — all with four fouls, which has become a familiar theme early into the season. Taking advantage of the caution ASU played with so as not to foul out their best rebounders (Goodman who finished with 12 on the night), the Aggies banked one in to make it an eight-point game.
But not before Holder sank a jumper to thwart the comeback attempt and put the Aggies away for good.
The Sun Devils ended the game with 22 points off turnovers and 17 made free throw attempts.
"Tonight was the best defense that I've been a part of since I've been here," Hurley said. "The guys were really up for the challenge and now we have to carry over some of that to Kentucky."
The Sun Devils will travel to Kentucky Saturday to face what will undeniably be their toughest road game of the season against the Wildcats at 1:15 p.m. MST. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN.