As he prepared for Saturday’s matchup with Oregon State, Arizona State Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley was flummoxed by a simple question. Following the Sun Devils electric win over the No. 14 Oregon Ducks Thursday night, Hurley wondered whether his team could match that same energy just two days later against an Oregon State team desperate for a win.
His concern was warranted, considering ASU’s troubling history this season of following up big wins (Georgia, Oregon State, Arizona) with crushing losses (St. Mary’s, Oregon, Washington State).
Yet, ask any number of Sun Devils, and they will confidently assert that this team is nothing similar to the group that lost by forty points to a mid-major, or only mustered two assists and shot 30.5% against their arch-rival. This is now a team that plays with a tenacity and toughness few can match. An Arizona State Sun Devils team that, following their 74-73 win over the Oregon State Beavers (15-12, 5-10) Saturday night, had now won seven games in a row. And a team that, against all odds, now finds themselves sitting alone atop the Pac-12 standings.
“As a coach, you always worry about short turnarounds, one day in between, can you reach deep again? And the guys did it,” Hurley said. “It’s amazing the character these guys have shown, battled through so much. Just where we were at one point, we’ve kind of transformed ourselves and found an identity.”
One could reasonably assume this new identity forged by ASU would not have been possible without the hardships suffered earlier in the season. Coaches harp often on those disappointing losses, reminding their players just how far they have come and just how easily they could slip back there.
“That was something that we talked about heavily, and that was something that was on all of our minds,” Alonzo Verge Jr. said of the team’s acknowledgement of past letdowns following big victories. “We wanted to keep that edge, and know that we can’t just beat a good team and then come back and lose.”
That edge has helped push ASU to the top of the Pac-12 standings, a reality that just a few months ago was simply unfathomable. They needed some help to earn the distinction, needing losses by both Colorado and Arizona Saturday night to claim full ownership of first place, but there is no denying just how special the Sun Devil’s climb has been.
“Coach was telling us [that first place was up for grabs], so that gave us even more of a drive,” Romello White described. “We knew what we were playing for.”
The allure of first place inspired an impressive defensive performance by ASU, as the Sun Devils were able to keep Saturday’s game close despite continued stretches of offensive ineptitude. ASU was especially staunch defensively late in Saturday’s contest, forcing misses on eight of Oregon State’s final ten shots including a potential game-winner with one second remaining.
“I’m just proud of the guys again, finding a way to win a close game,” Hurley said. “This was a tough game to play… They gave us their best shot.”
Offensively, ASU played with rare balance, finishing with five players in double figures for just the fourth time this season and the first time since their win over Washington three weeks ago. Verge and Remy Martin led the Sun Devils with 17 points apiece, showing an improved ability to play off of each other’s strengths, while Romello White and Kimani Lawrence added 15 and 14 points respectively.
“It’s good when you have balance, you have options, and you have multiple guys playing well,” Hurley said.
The balance the team has struck is far from an accident, as coaches have drilled into their players the importance of sharing the ball and prioritizing high-quality looks. It appears now that their message is finally coming to fruition, as three of ASU’s five highest assist totals this season have come in the midst of their seven-game winning streak.
“We’re not going away from what we know, playing selfish,” White explained. “We’re just sticking together as a team, playing defense as a team, rebounding as a team, moving the ball, so that’s what’s been helping us down the stretch.”
Up next for ASU is a showdown with UCLA, who shares the distinction of the Pac-12’s hottest team with wins in seven of their last eight contests including victories over Colorado twice and Arizona in Tucson. For the Sun Devils though, who took down the Bruins 84-66 a little over two weeks ago, their focus remains on the bigger picture as they work to reach a height they believe they have still not yet achieved.
“We are getting better as a team, we have not peaked yet. That’s a good feeling this time of year,” Hurley gushed. “You love a team that you got to rip your heart out to beat them, and that’s the kind of effort and what we’re bringing to the court every game.”