For the first half of conference play, the Arizona State Sun Devils were floundering. Failing to capture what got them to a 12-0 start, they fell outside the top 25 for the first time since before Thanksgiving.
Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena, the Sun Devils (19-6, 7-6 Pac-12) found some of what was lost, knocking off the red-hot UCLA Bruins 88-79 in large part to the play of their guards.
The win is the third in a row for ASU, marking the first three-game conference win streak and first weekend sweep since coach Bobby Hurley’s arrival, as the Sun Devils last did both of those in 2015.
Reminding the world of why they adopted the “Guard U” moniker, seniors Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice and freshman Remy Martin combined for 69 of the 88 total points scored by the Sun Devils.
“That was our calling card for a lot of the year,” Hurley said. “You need that. As the year progresses and you get to postseason, you want to have guard that are elite, that can be playmakers, that make great decisions and that’s what puts you in position to contend for championships.”
While only one of the four shot over 50 percent, each of them dominated the pace of the game, keeping the Bruins on their heels throughout, especially once ASU took a lead.
The Sun Devils used Justice, coming off his worst game of the season, to take advantage of UCLA’s 3-2 zone and get them out of their base defense.
“We were really trying to attack the corners and the middle,” Justice said. “And to execute the way we did, especially so early, was so big for us because then they had to quickly switch to man and they were trying to mix it up because they were having a hard time stopping any of us.”
Justice sank his first four shots from the field and added two assists to freshman forward Romello White in the game’s first eight minutes, picking up the offensive slack.
While relying heavily on Justice, the game was a back-and-forth affair. Once Holder and Evans got involved, ASU took control.
The Sun Devils took a 23-22 lead on a 3-pointer by Evans with 9:16 remaining in the game. From that point on, Holder and Evans scored 20 and 19 points, respectively, breaking it open.
In the second half, the most important Sun Devil was one who has taken a while to make his presence felt.
Sometimes overlooked since his injury during the preseason, freshman forward Kimani Lawrence has played sparingly since his return in January. In 10 second half minutes, he contributed six points, five rebounds, two steals and a block, making his impact felt up and down the court.
“I’ve been in that role as a player professionally where you don’t even know when your name is going to get called,” Hurley said. “When it is, you have to be ready to perform.”
Helped by Lawrence’s defensive presence, ASU was able to maintain a healthy lead, never allowing the Bruins to get within eight points in the second half and only once allowing a UCLA run greater than 4-0.
Riding high, the Sun Devils face their toughest remaining test Thursday when the No. 13 Arizona Wildcats return to Wells Fargo Arena. The Sun Devils lost to the Wildcats in their first meeting on Dec. 30, when Arizona ended ASU’s unbeaten start to the year.