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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils cruise to 84-66 win over UCLA

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Over .500 in conference

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona State Sun Devils’ coaches have been startlingly simple in their messaging so far this season. Move the ball, they’ve preached, and good things will happen. Head coach Bobby Hurley has harped on the basic concept time after time, prioritizing play time for those who follow the rule and lambasting those who don’t, while assistant coach Rashon Burno has provided the cold, hard data to back up the claim.

And yet, the concept has remained a difficult one for the Sun Devils to grasp. Too often they have relied on individual heroics to save them from scoring droughts, looking to their plethora of highly-skilled guards to bail them out in times of trouble. That is, until Thursday, when ASU (14-8, 5-4 Pac-12) rode a stellar shooting performance and a conference-play best 16 assists to a dominant 84-66 victory over the visiting UCLA Bruins (12-11, 5-5), possibly prompting the breakthrough Hurley and staff have been desperately waiting for.

“We’re starting to notice that when we’re moving the ball, we’re a hard team to beat,” forward Kimani Lawrence, who finished the game with 11 points thanks in large part to 3-3 shooting from three, revealed. “Most of our games when we win, our good wins, is because we’re moving the ball and sharing the ball.”

Along with a greater emphasis on unselfish play, ASU worked to push the pace from the opening tip, consistently generating high-percentage looks early in the shot clock. ASU’s 27 fast break points Thursday was tied for their second highest total of the season, topped only by the 37 the Sun Devils scored in their drubbing of Central Connecticut State earlier this year. Much of the team’s success in the open court had to do with the abilities of junior guard Remy Martin, who according to Hurley “orchestrated more tonight and really set the table for other guys” en route to his seven assist performance.

“When the team gets like this man, it’s easy for us,” Martin described. “When we get in transition, and we play defense and get out and everybody’s contributing, it makes the game so much easier.”

Alonzo Verge Jr. led all scorers with 26 points in the win, pouring in 24 of those points in a dominant second half that saw the junior go 9-12 from the field and 3-3 from beyond the arc. Coming off the bench for the fifth straight game, Verge has settled nicely into his role as the second unit’s primary scoring option, operating with greater confidence as he continues to carve out a niche within the team.

“I feel like I’m doing better coming off the bench,” Verge said. “I get to see what’s going on on the court before I get out there, I get to see what some of the team’s weaknesses are and strengths. I look at it in a positive way. I’m helping my team win, and we’re winning, so I don’t mind it.”

Verge was far from the only Sun Devil with hot hand Thursday night, as ASU’s 14 made threes was their highest total so far this season. The team matched their high volume from deep with impressive efficiency, connecting on 58% of their three point attempts which was good for their second highest percentage so far this year. Whether it was Verge, Lawrence, or junior forward Khalid Thomas, who all finished a perfect 3-3 from beyond the arc, ASU consistently made UCLA pay for leaving shooters open, resulting in likely the Sun Devil’s strongest shooting performance of the season.

“I’ve always felt like we were a better shooting team than we’ve demonstrated in a lot of other games,” Hurley said. “Multiple guys are in a good rhythm right now and playing well on the offensive end, so it’s good to see.”

Defensively, ASU continues to assert themselves as one of the conference’s elite units, holding UCLA to just 38% shooting from the field including a dismal 28% from three. Thursday also marked the fifth instance over the Sun Devils last six games where they have held their opponent below their season scoring average. Hurley attributed a significant portion of ASU’s defensive success to forward Romello White, who continues to show substantial progress as both an on-ball defender and rim protector. His abilities on the glass were also on full display Thursday, as White pulled down 16 rebounds to preserve his spot as the Pac-12’s leader in rebounds per game.

“It’s a great anchor on your defense, especially when you make a team miss, to know you got him under the basket grabbing those defensive rebounds,” Hurley said of White. “He was a force in the paint for us.”

Winners in four of their last five contests, ASU remains in the thick of the Pac-12 race with only nine games remaining before the conference tournament. As the team looks to replicate Thursday’s remarkable shooting performance going forward, each Sun Devil recognizes just how dangerous this team could be when everybody plays to the peak of their potential.

“It’s good to see that everyone was clicking on the same day,” Lawrence said. “It’s just all about getting hot at the right time. We’re in a good position to get a couple games together, get a couple wins together, and make a run right before the Pac-12 tournament.”