After losing a game by 46 points earlier in the week against Kentucky, the Arizona State Sun Devils could have reacted one of two ways in their return to game action on Saturday night.
But instead of licking their wounds after the humbling defeat, Arizona State (5-3) took a big step forward against the visiting UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
Using a school record-tying 18 three-pointers, the Sun Devils jumped all over UNLV (5-3) to the tune of a 97-73 win. But according to head coach Bobby Hurley, that response wasn’t a sure thing.
"You always wonder about the psyche and confidence of the team after something like that,” said Hurley after the victory. “But we practice real hard and our guys have a lot of pride.”
Junior guard Shannon Evans II led the way for a much-improved Arizona State team, pouring in 28 points on a 9-of-12 shooting mark from the field. Three other starters - Tra Holder, Sam Cunliffe, and Torian Graham, also finished the night in double figures.
This one was all Sun Devils from the outset as the team buried seven three-pointers before even making a two-point field goal. That barrage of long balls staked the Maroon and Gold to an early 23-11 advantage, a lead they would never relinquish.
“Everybody had it going tonight,” Graham said. “It didn’t matter who shot it, so we just had to drive and kick it to the open person.”
That plan worked for the duration of the first half, and while the Rebels were able to pull within 10 points of the lead at 42-32, Arizona State closed the half with a 9-0 run to take a commanding 51-32 advantage into the locker rooms.
“We wanted to develop an identity and be the aggressor,” said Hurley. “We made them work and earn the court.”
The aggressive play continued to start the final 20 minutes as the Sun Devils made it clear that there would be no comeback on this night. A three-pointer from Graham pushed the margin to 21 points with 14 minutes to play, and the visitors from Vegas never got closer than 19 the rest of the way.
As the minutes ticked off the clock, the only question was whether or not the home team could tie (or break) the program record for made three-pointers.
One of those questions was answered with just over one minute remaining as Evans buried Arizona State’s 18th triple of the night, but the team was ultimately unable to break the record in the final 60 seconds.
According to Graham, the record wasn’t on anyone’s mind anyways.
“We didn’t know,” he said when asked about the feat afterwards. “We were just trying to win.”
If that was indeed the only goal, the Sun Devils passed their test with flying colors on Saturday. The shots were falling, the defense was aggressive, and the tempo was dictated by the Maroon and Gold all night long.
That combination is the perfect formula for picking up wins in college basketball, but whether or not Hurley’s team can keep that production up as the schedule toughens remains to be seen.
That question will be answered soon enough as Arizona State faces both Purdue and San Diego State away from home in a five-day stretch starting Tuesday, but for now, the Sun Devils can exhale and enjoy this 24-point win.
“That was very important - probably our most important win of the season,” Graham said after the victory. “It was good to get out of that dark place.”