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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils ride dominant defensive effort to 66-64 win over USC


COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 08 USC at Arizona State Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Plus/minus is far from the perfect stat, but at its core, its main function is to illuminate the game’s most impactful players. By simply charting the net scoring differential of each player’s time on the court, one could reasonably assume who provided the most positive or negative value for their team.

So it should come as some surprise that ASU’s leader in plus/minus in Saturday’s 66-64 come from behind victory over USC was not Remy Martin, who’s rim-rattling pull up jumper with 19 seconds ended up deciding the game for the Sun Devils; nor was it the team’s second leading scorer Alonzo Verge Jr., who at times almost singlehandedly carried the ASU offense in the first half with his team-leading 13 points in the period.

It wasn’t even Romello White, who finished with seven points and a team-high 10 rebounds while playing fantastic defense on the Trojans talented pair of frontcourt stalwarts Onyeka Okongwu and Nick Rakocevic.

No, ASU’s leader in plus/minus was Taeshon Cherry, followed closely by Jaelen House. Two players who combined for 1 point on 0-6 shooting in just a total of 27 minutes between the two.

The logic behind the stat may be puzzling to some, but to Cherry and House’s teammates and coaches, the fact that the pair finished as ASU’s two most valuable contributors in the victory makes perfect sense.

“He was throwing his body around, he was being physical. I know he didn’t make any shots, but he was having an impact on the game,” head coach Bobby Hurley said of Cherry’s value. “His energy in our press was very effective. So it was more his defense then than what he had done on offense.”

Martin gave a similarly insightful look into the importance of House, who Martin has taken under his wing as the junior prepares to pass off the reigns to ASU’s point guard of the future.

“Jaelen House, he comes in and he gives us energy every time he gets on the floor and I think that helps us a lot,” Martin said on House’s effectiveness. “Jaelen House always brings the energy, does the stuff that we need him to do, and those little things that he does make a big impact on the game. With him on our team, it’s just incredible.”

Martin was equally effusive when talking about the pair as a whole, and just how motivating the duo’s energy can be for a team that at times lacked that extra spark Saturday night.

“It’s a collective group, but those two guys are the guys that come in and put in work,” Martin said of Cherry and House. “It made everybody play harder. When you see a guy playing hard, one of your teammates that you’ve been through it all with, then you get to a point where it’s contagious. You want to play hard for that person and the whole team.”

It was that extra effort that likely carried ASU to victory Saturday, as the Sun Devils relied heavily on their defense as their offense struggled mightily.

Despite a second half stretch of over 11 minutes that saw the Sun Devils go without a field goal, missing 15 straight attempts, ASU was able to keep the score close thanks to an intense defensive effort built on the abilities of their vaunted full-court press.

“We were watching film, and Coach said they’re shaky. So we just tried to get up in them,” House said of why the press was so effective against USC. “The only thing you can do on defense is just have so much intensity and give it your all, empty the tank like Coach Hurley says. So that’s what we did.”

Instituted towards the beginning of the second half, ASU’s press was the most effective tool for cutting into a USC lead that peaked at 13 points.

The Sun Devils knew coming into Saturday’s contest that the Trojan guards handled intense pressure poorly, and planned to deploy their full-court attack when the team needed it the most.

“We were really pressuring the ball, we were rotating, we were hustling, it’s just a mentality thing. Some teams can’t take that amount of pressure because they’ve never seen it before or been through it,” Verge explained, ending his soliloquy with a simple yet profound metaphor. “Pressure busts pipes.”

Another motivator in ASU’s miraculous comeback was a Hurley halftime speech of epic proportions.

Classified by Khalid Thomas as one of the head coach’s most intense so far this season, Hurley harped on the fundamentals as he willed his team to fight their way back into Saturday’s game.

“He knew we were supposed to be playing better,” Verge said of Hurley’s halftime message. “Coach Hurley always has confidence in us, he knows what we’re capable of doing. He just wanted to get us out of that slump. He knew that we had to rebound better, and stick to defense and make them turn over the ball and pressure them more because they didn’t like pressure.”

Winners now of three straight and five of their last six, ASU will look to build off its first sweep of conference play as they head to California to face off with the Stanford Cardinal and Cal Golden Bears.

With the Sun Devils vaulted up to third place in the Pac-12 following Saturday’s win, the team appears to be peaking at the right time with only a handful of games remaining before the Pac-12 tournament.

Yet for a team with sky-high expectations, no amount of winning, save for a conference championship, will satiate the hunger this group currently possesses.

“We’re not satisfied, we know we’re supposed to been doing this,” Verge said. “It’s just finally starting to string together now, and everybody starting to come together a little bit more and everything’s just starting to roll in. This is something that we’ve been know we was capable of doing, and something that we’re going to continue doing.”