As the Arizona State Sun Devils deficit reached 22 late in the first half, it was hard not to draw comparisons between the blowout currently in progress and the one that had taken place just a few weeks earlier. The Sun Devils were once again struggling to shoot the ball, connecting on just two of their first 12 three point attempts, and had similar struggles containing the Arizona interior attack. The rebounding disparity was equally stark, even with a fully healthy Romello White, and the Sun Devil assist numbers were once again far from encouraging.
Yet as halftime neared, head coach Bobby Hurley relayed a simple message. Win these last three minutes he preached, and this game was far from over. ASU (12-7, 3-3 Pac-12) followed their coach’s orders, cutting the UA lead to 13 thanks in large part to three buckets from Alonzo Verge Jr. in the final 154 seconds, and as ASU retreated to the locker room, the sense emerged that a comeback was well within reach.
“A lot of winners in the locker room, (who) for years have gone to the tournament, have had good records, expect to win,” Hurley said following ASU’s 66-65 comeback win. “A lot of teams (would’ve) got the shovels out, shoveled dirt on us, but we have too many winners that weren’t going to back out of the game. They really attacked the last 25 minutes of that game and dominated the last 25 minutes.”
The sentiment didn’t become reality though until the 4:31 mark of the second half, when a Remy Martin layup gave ASU their first lead since 13:31 remained in the first half. By that point, Desert Financial Arena was at the loudest it’s been all season, and as the Arizona Wildcats (13-6, 3-3) crumbled, the Sun Devils soared to their first signature win of the season.
“It was a pretty special night out there,” Hurley said. “Wasn’t shaping up that way early, but it shows I think a lot of heart. We’ve been in a lot of tough game this games this year and [tonight] showed our will, our determination, grit to stay in the fight, stay in the battle. So I’m just super proud of our performance tonight.”
Examine enough of ASU’s losses this season, and a consistent theme quickly begins to emerge. When the team struggles, they often exacerbate their poor play with troubling shot selection and a pertinence for rushed and contested attempts. For a group that has built itself around the exceptional scoring ability of its guards, the confidence each one possesses can quickly become the team’s downfall.
In the early parts of ASU’s win Saturday, it appeared that this issue had once again reared its ugly head. For a team that had managed a measly two assists in their previous matchup with UA, the Sun Devils were suffering from similar struggles moving the ball and generating consistently strong looks. The lack of scoring balance was once again glaring, with only four Sun Devils collecting a first half bucket, and ASU appeared on track to recreate their 28-point loss from just a few weeks prior.
As the Sun Devil comeback effort crescendoed in the game’s final 10 minutes, the team began to adopt a new mentality. The usually quick-triggered ASU guards began passing up good shots for great ones, prioritizing high-percentage looks in the lane for themselves and their teammates. No one benefited more from this shift than Martin, who connected on six of his eight second half attempts after going 4-9 in the game’s first period. The most poignant example of this newly adopted approach though came on ASU’s final offensive possession, when a play designed for Rob Edwards ultimately ended with Verge, who rewarded his teammates unselfishness with the biggest basket of his young career.
“The trust was there,” Verge explained. “Rob, he could’ve shot it or forced up a shot, [but] he just gave it to me and he trusted that I was going to make the right play. That’s what this is about, us gelling together. When we come together like we have, it’s very hard to beat us.”
ASU’s comeback, their largest since a 21-point effort against Stanford 16 years ago, was due in no small part to possibly the Sun Devils staunchest second half defensive effort so far this season. Whether it was limiting UA to just 22 second half points after they poured in 43 in the game’s first half, or holding the Wildcats to 0-8 shooting from beyond the arc over the final 20 minutes, ASU’s ability to limit UA’s potent offensive attack was one of the primary reasons the Sun Devils pulled off the unlikely upset.
It’s no coincidence ASU’s strongest moments defensively mostly came with Jalen Graham on the floor. One of the Sun Devil’s most surprising contributors so far this season, Graham has been a revelation as an impressive rim protector with an unexpectedly deft touch around the basket. With White plagued by foul trouble for most of Saturday’s contest, Graham provided crucial minutes as the team’s primary defense for UA’s relentless interior attack.
“Jalen showed that he belonged in that game, Hurley said. “He got a few tips, kept the ball active a couple times. He had a great challenge of [UA forward Stone] Gettings at the rim and then got a big rebound for us. His minutes were great because Romello was in foul trouble and we needed that production. He was fantastic.”
Now, ASU works to build off of their first two game win streak in Pac-12 play as they prepare for a grueling trip up north to face off with both Washington and Washington State. As the Sun Devils soak in one of the most iconic moments of the Hurley era, Martin wants to make sure it’s far from the last.
“This is what we’re supposed to do, this is Arizona State now,” Martin said. “This is not back in the day Arizona State where Arizona would just come in and win; it’s not like that anymore. Last game they got us, but that shows the character and the team that we have that we can come back from those type of losses and do this.”