Despite a first half that saw the Sun Devils get caught up in a shootout game and away from their interior attack, Arizona State blitzed through the Bulldog defense in the second half to cruise to a 127-110 victory. The Maroon and Gold had six players finish with double digit points, including four Sun Devils breaking the 20-point threshold.
“I was pleased to see the ball go through the basket. That’s the good news,” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “We shot and scored the ball a lot better than we did in Florida, particularly our last game. I just wish we had a little more resistance defensively, especially in the second half. They’re a very unique team, you don’t come across a lot of teams that play the style that they play and get up and down like they do.”
Playing against a Citadel team ranked first in the nation in tempo, the Sun Devils were dragged into an offensive shootout. There were fireworks aplenty from the get-go, as Obinna Oleka opened the game’s scoring with a three-pointer.
A pair of buckets in the paint from Oleka paced the Sun Devils to an early 10-4 lead, but the players from The Citadel had no problem keeping up with the offensive pace. Brian White sank a three for the Bulldogs and Kaelon Harris followed that with a thunderous dunk to pull the Citadel back within three points at 27-24.
With under five minutes left in the first half and clinging onto a 39-35 lead, Oleka jump-started another run from the Sun Devils that put them in a healthy advantage heading into the second half with a two-handed flush, setting the stage for Kodi Justice. The junior guard answered a Citadel bucket with a contested three, then drained another on ASU’s next possession to extend the lead back to seven points. On the night, the junior shot 6-8 from the field and 5-6 from three.
Leading 55-45 at the break, the Sun Devils could have come out in the second and reemphasized a commitment to stingy defense. Rather, the offensive explosion continued, and the two teams engaged in a back-and-forth barn burner of a second period.
Torian Graham drained a three and after poking away the ball from a Citadel player, followed it with a fast-break dunk, and after another Justice bucket and a pair of Oleka free throws it appeared as if Arizona State was getting set to run away with the game at 66-52.
Rather, The Citadel offense flipped a switch and relied on Harris to pull them back within striking distance. The true freshman made consecutive three-pointers to cut the deficit in half, and set up Quayson Williams for another trey to turn it into a 69-65 game just couple minutes after the Sun Devils seemed to be taking firm control.
“I thought we fought harder on defense against Davidson,” Hurley said. “Our defense wasn’t good enough to win games the way we’d like to win. They deny passing lanes everywhere, so you get away from what your halfcourt offense is and it becomes more of a wide open game where you have to go by people on the dribble and make more plays on the offensive end.”
The game remained a single-digit contest up to the ten-minute mark of the second half, setting the stage for Shannon Evans II to take over. A pair of free throws followed by a dunk from the transfer guard upped the advantage to 87-76, and once Graham drained a three-pointer on ASU’s next possession it was game. The two teams traded buckets for the rest of the game, but the closest the Citadel would come to the Sun Devils would be at 103-95, and ASU’s offense lit the scoreboard up enough to pull away from the Bulldogs.
While the team got the win, coach Hurley was less than pleased with his team’s effort on the defensive side of the ball, arguing it fell into the trap of playing at Thr Citadel’s pace.
“It’s human nature to look up at the scoreboard and start thinking about the wrong things in a game like that,” coach Hurley said. “We were thinking a little too much about the success we could have on the (offensive) end and forgetting about the business we have to take care of on defense.”
Next up, the Sun Devils will travel to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, where they’ll have the treat of playing the No. 1 team in the country in Kentucky. ASU played the Wildcats last season in Hurley’s first season and hung with them in the first half, only faltering in the second period en route to a 72-58 defeat.
Knowing the challenge ahead of his team, Hurley was still having trouble getting over the challenge his team just passed.
“I think our players will be very excited to play the game,” coach Hurley said. “Obviously we’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for that program and the talent in that program. You don’t get to play the No. 1 team in the country that often, so we’re gonna have to have a couple of days of great practice, and clean up our defense because I’m scared to think how many points they might score on us if we play defense like we played defense tonight.”