In a matchup billed as a showdown between two of the Pac-12’s best guards, it was an unexpected pair of backcourt players who stole the show Thursday night. Whether it was Alonzo Verge Jr., who finished with a game-high 26 points, or fellow guard Rob Edwards and his 24 points, the Arizona State Sun Devils (18-8, 9-4 Pac-12) less heralded guards were on full display Thursday as the Sun Devils took down the No. 14 Oregon Ducks (20-7, 9-5) 77-72 to collect their sixth straight win and remain near the top of the cutthroat Pac-12.
“We ran less structured, set plays tonight,” coach Bobby Hurley explained. “Giving the guys even more freedom to go off the dribble and we kind of made good decisions…. You’ve got to trust your guys that could go and have a little more freedom to make a play.”
Coming into Thursday’s matchup with the Ducks, Verge spoke at length about the personal importance of the game. After finishing with zero points in ASU’s loss to Oregon earlier this season, Verge approached the rematch with what he called a “totally different mindspace.” The technique was clearly effective, as the JUCO transfer lead all scorers with 26 points while consistently collecting buckets when the Sun Devils needed them most.
“I had a chip on my shoulder going into this game, I knew prior that I didn’t score versus them and I knew that they were playing against a whole different person,” Verge said. “From the beginning of the year, I’m totally mentally different.”
Verge was especially dynamic against Oregon’s full-court press, patiently breaking down the defense to generate easy looks for him and his teammates. A uniquely devastating player in the open court, Verge combined his strong handle with his breakneck speed to give the Ducks fits throughout the second half.
“I thought Zo did a nice job, he’s like a one man press break,” Hurley said of Verge’s play against the press. “You just give him the ball, and it’s like a car weaving through traffic on the 101 or something, he’s really got the ball on a string and just did a nice job of breaking the pressure, late in the game especially.”
Edwards was equally proficient in Thursday’s win, matching a season high with his 24 point outing. The redshirt junior has credited his confidence throughout the season as the key to his success, touting the idea that he always believes his shots are going in regardless of his past attempts. This strategy was on full display Thursday, as Edwards recovered from a 1-5 shooting start by connecting on eight of his final ten attempts including makes on his final three three-point tries.
His play was benefited greatly by the abilities of guard Remy Martin, who dished four of his game-high five assists to Edwards. ASU’s two starting guards continue to work well in tandem, as the pressure on Martin to act as the team’s primary scoring option lessens with each passing game.
“It just goes back again to our ability to penetrate and get to the basket. Remy can do that, Zo can do that, and when Rob is hitting shots it puts enormous pressure on defenses to figure out how they’re going to help,” Hurley said. “When we have those guys going in gear, we’re tough to guard.”
Thursday was another strong showing defensively for ASU, as they limited the high-powered Ducks to just 42% shooting from the field and 29% shooting from three. The Sun Devils set the tone early with their defense, forcing Oregon misses on 11 of their first 12 shot attempts.
“It was great effort, especially in the first half defensively,” Hurley commented. “We knew a big part of the game was going to be three-point line defense, they have multiple guys that can get it going from three, and I thought we did a nice job the whole game overall doing that.”
Much of ASU’s defensive success came from their quieting of Oregon guard Payton Pritchard, who averages a conference best 19.4 points per game. Before catching fire late in the second half, Pritchard was mostly held in check throughout Thursday’s contest, scoring just two points in the first half. The potential Pac-12 player of the year was also hampered by foul trouble, fouling out with 2:15 remaining in the game to all but secure the victory for ASU.
“We talked about the guys just stepping up individually and taking the challenge. It was on them,” Hurley said of the defensive strategy against Pritchard. “It was Remy, it was Zo, it was Rob Edwards, it was House. Whoever was on Payton made it difficult.”
Up next for ASU is a duel with an Oregon State Beavers team Hurley called “desperate” following their loss Thursday night to the Arizona Wildcats. As the Sun Devils work to collect their seventh straight win, Hurley is quick to remind everyone just how far this team has come so far this season, and the pride he feels in the journey this team has taken.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity all year,” Hurley said. “A lot of things that we’ve had to work through and fight through. Nothing was ever easy. I’m just so proud of how we battled, starting out 1-3 and where we’ve come. It’s an amazing run we’ve been on.”