TEMPE, AZ — There are open-air bars on the left side of the street, various chain restaurants and boutique stores on the right. It’s a typical Friday night on Mill Avenue, the top destination for nightlife in the city of Tempe.
It’s also the last place you would expect to find college basketball, but that changed last night thanks to an innovative plan hatched by the Arizona State Sun Devils athletic department and Programming and Activities Board.
“We had this vision about 10 years ago,” says associate athletic director Bill Kennedy. “We tried to get it going on at least three different occasions but something always came up. Sometimes the court was too expensive, sometimes we couldn’t get the dates to line up.”
On Friday, the plan 10 years in the making was realized.
After receiving a large amount of funding for the event from the PAB, an outdoor basketball court was erected at the corner of 7th and Mill Ave.
The purpose? Hosting a “Midnight Madness” type event for both the Arizona State men’s and women’s basketball teams.
By all accounts, the event was a success. A crowd three to four rows deep on each side of the court was on hand as the teams competed in two different types of shooting competitions to start the night. The event then concluded with a slam dunk contest, which was won by shooting guard Torian Graham for a second straight season.
“It is terrific,” men’s coach Bobby Hurley said after arriving on the scene. “I don’t know if it’s been done before, but I love the idea. It’s a great way to incorporate the great things we have here around campus.”
While some Sun Devil students competed in knockout games and half-court shootouts to win t-shirts and a trip to Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament, the players arrived in a tram with a police escort. They were then introduced to the crowd one by one, an entrance complete with pyrotechnics and individual walk-up music.
There were many great introductions tonight, but Tra Holder brought the house down. pic.twitter.com/e8f47brpzK— Connor Pelton (@ConnorPelton28) October 15, 2016
“It felt good to ride past all the traffic,” said Graham after his dunk contest victory. “Everyone was wondering where we were going.”
The first competition of the night was called the “Sun Devil Shootout”, which consisted of combined-gender teams shooting from different spots on the court. The trio of Austin Witherill, Quinn Dornstauder, and Charnea Johnson-Chapman ended up taking home the crown, with Witherill draining a half-court shot to seal the deal.
While no current women’s players have competed outdoors before, the concept wasn’t a new one for head coach Charli Turner Thorne. Her Arizona State teams have played two games outside at Chase Field in the past, first in 2000 against Tennessee and again six years later against Texas Tech.
“It reminds me of that,” Turner Thorne said. “This is gorgeous. Everyone just needs to keep in mind that when you see both teams shoot, the depth perception is a little different.”
The different backdrop didn’t seem to effect incoming East Coast transfers Shannon Evans II (Buffalo) and Courtney Ekmark (Connecticut), who buried a combined 31 three-pointers in the 60-second championship round to clinch the event’s three-point contest title.
The real highlights of the night, however, came in the slam dunk contest. And while guards Sam Cunliffe and Maurice O’Field impressed with their high-leaping ability, it ended up being Graham who stole the show with his self-titled “Torian Special”.
.@Torian_Graham won tonight's dunk contest with this baby. pic.twitter.com/btsWfoUaH1— Connor Pelton (@ConnorPelton28) October 15, 2016
“It’s just a dunk I did a long time ago,” Graham said. “It feels good to be able to get a dub because Sam (Cunliffe), he likes to talk junk. That was good.”
No one knew exactly what to expect heading into the first-ever edition of Mill Madness, but everyone left on Friday energized and ready for college basketball season.
And according to Hurley, it makes a lot of sense for the event to continue and become an annual tradition.
“It's different and unique,” said the second-year coach. “I think there are many ways we can continue to build and grow this over the years, but this is a great starting point.”