As Arizona State (20-11, 11-7 Pac-12) capped off its third straight 20-win season Saturday night with a 83-74 win over Washington State, the reality of just how far this team had come was not lost on coach Bobby Hurley.
At one point, the Sun Devils were 12-8 with a 40-point loss to a mid-major blemishing an overall mediocre resume.
Their chances of earning an NCAA tournament bid seemed slim at best, as the team appeared destined to crumble under the pressure of a suddenly deep and competitive Pac-12.
Yet against all odds, ASU will head to next week’s conference tournament with a first round bye secured, thanks in large part to a seven-game win streak that vaulted the Sun Devils to the top of the Pac-12 standings.
It was a streak that began after ASU’s last second, two-point loss to these same Washington State Cougars just a few weeks ago; a fact that, to Hurley, is far from a coincidence.
“I’m really proud of our grit, toughness, resiliency; all the things that we’ve been talking about probably since after we lost to Washington State at Washington State,” Hurley said following Saturday’s win. “It’s kind of come full circle..It’s funny how things work.”
ASU’s storybook end to its season was almost squandered multiple times Saturday, as the Sun Devils blew a 17-point second half lead to allow Washington State to tie the game at 65 with 3:36 remaining.
Yet unlike Thursday’s disappointing loss to Washington that featured a similar blown lead, the Sun Devils hit a number of key shots late to neuter the Cougars comeback efforts and obtain a bye.
“I feel like we had so much fight in us tonight for senior night,” redshirt senior Rob Edwards described. “Some of the younger guys, they were giving it their all for us, regardless of what went down, and I feel like that’s how we came out on top. We just kept fighting until the end, and we weren’t going to let each other down.”
Edwards highlighted the small group of seniors honored Saturday, as he was joined by forward Mickey Mitchell and guard Grant Fogerty in the celebrations that took place before the game.
Both Edwards and Mitchell have played a substantial role in ASU’s successes this season, and Saturday was no different. Mitchell finished with eight points on 3-4 shooting, adding in six rebounds to go along with his consistently stellar defense.
Edwards was as Hurley put it, “saddled with some fouls,” but still managed to stuff the stat sheet with six rebounds, three assists, three steals and nine points including a momentum-snatching three with 95 seconds remaining.
“It’s been an amazing journey to coach Mickey Mitchell and Rob Edwards. They’ve been great kids for the program, have really elevated the program significantly by not only their play, but their attitude and their work ethic and their habits,” Hurley said. “It’s fitting that those two players had their imprints all over a huge game that was needed.”
A number of those fouls accrued by Edwards came when he guarded Washington State’s CJ Elleby, who finished with 27 points, including the game-winner the last time the two teams met.
Saturday was a much different story for the sophomore, though, as Elleby finished with just six points on 2-19 shooting, including a dismal 0-10 from three.
“Last game we played them, (Elleby) waved at our bus when they beat us in Washington State so (Hurley) put a real big emphasis on not letting him get off,” Edwards explained. “I feel like we did a great job. Everybody who was checking him had awareness on him, we weren’t really too much in help off of him, and we didn’t let him get going early.”
Another contributing factor on Saturday was the return to relative normalcy for junior guard Remy Martin, who finished the game with 18 points and six assists.
Despite needing 15 shots to reach his point total, Martin played at a much higher level than he had Thursday when he finished with just six points on 2-14 shooting, including going 1-10 from three.
Yet for Martin, who will likely finish as the Pac-12 player of the year runner-up, Saturday’s performance was still far from where he wants to be heading into the season’s most crucial stretch.
“I still am individually very upset at myself,” Martin said. “I don’t think that I’m shooting the ball nearly as efficiently as I should be shooting. I’ve got to find my groove, I’ve got to do it the right way. There’s a lot of things that I feel like I need to do but I’m not really overthinking it.”
Martin was one of three Sun Devils to finish with double-digit scoring, as Martin’s 18 was topped only by junior guard Alonzo Verge Jr.’s 20-points. The third Sun Devil in double-figures was redshirt junior forward Romello White, who ended with 10 points to go along with five rebounds.
His play though, while typical for White, may have been the most impressive of the night considering the circumstances surrounding it. White’s grandmother passed Sunday, forcing White to make the difficult decision of how to best balance family with basketball.
He chose to fly back home to Atlanta following Thursday’s game, not getting back to Arizona until late the following evening.
“His mind wasn’t really there,” Martin revealed. “For him to come out and play the way he did, it makes me really happy. That’s tough to do. I can’t even imagine what he’s going through, but I just know that it’s probably one of the toughest things to do.”
White leads an inspired group now traveling to Las Vegas with hopes of claiming the school’s first Pac-12 championship.
As the team awaits the winner of sixth seeded Colorado and eleventh seeded Washington State’s matchup, the team is fully cognizant of the opportunity that lies ahead of them.
“At the end of the day, playing another Pac-12 team, knowing that everybody’s beatable, everybody’s a good team, is just more motivation,” Martin said. “We’ve got to make sure we go out there and execute and do whatever we need to do. But going to Vegas and the Pac-12 tournament, just the atmosphere like I said, is incredible and we’ve got to make sure we take care of business.”