Arizona State returned to the court five days after the crowd-silencing buzzer-beating loss to UC Riverside looking to make a statement against the North Florida Ospreys.
North Florida’s (0-4) Jose Placer made a lot of noise with 25 points and four 3-pointers, but in the end, the Sun Devils (2-1) got the last word with a 72-63 victory.
DJ Horne continued his sensational accuracy from distance, turning in four 3-pointers of his own to add to 16 points which led the Sun Devils. It was a rebound night for Horne after he struggled and scored only two points in 24 minutes in the loss last Thursday.
“Going into this game I told myself I needed to have a short memory and I felt like I did that,” Horne said.
For the second time in three games, the Sun Devils started cold from the field. And for the second time in three games, impressive defensive effort and an overall size advantage allowed them to overcome the lack of shot-making.
From the opening tip, the Sun Devils had a fight on their hands. The visiting Ospreys raced out to a 16-4 advantage with stove-hot shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Placer was in rhythm as soon as he got the ball, and the rest of his teammates combined to hit the Osprey’s opening four 3-pointers.
Even as the rest of the Ospreys cooled down, Placer continued to light it up from all over the court. After the Sun Devils had cut the lead to 20-15, Placer drove inside and created a three-point-play for himself to extend the lead back to eight.
A lot of the credit should go to the Sun Devil defense tightening up near the end of the first half. A now blond-haired Jalen Graham returned for the first time this season after being sidelined to the COVID-19 exempt list, and Hurley rolled out numerous lineups with three bigs. After the Ospreys could no longer shoot over the Sun Devils, they found it difficult to go through them.
“I wanted to see Kimani and (Alonzo Gaffney) and Jalen Graham out there,” Hurley said. “Especially with San Diego State and how big they are.”
While the shooting numbers from the field notably improved in the second half, the free-throws eluded the Sun Devils all night long. For the second straight game, the Sun Devils attempted 18 of them, and a 38.9 percent number is not going to cut it against the teams Arizona State has on its upcoming schedule.
Forward Kimani Lawrence missed six free-throws, including one air ball, on a night where he appeared increasingly unsettled with every succeeding trip to the line.
“Certainly, you don’t want to shoot those numbers,” Hurley said. “I don’t think anyone was trying to. Kimani had been shooting them really well, he’ll get to work on that.”
Hurley also qualified the poor number by saying the majority of the free-throws were attempted by the Sun Devils forwards. He’s right. Of those 18 attempts, only four were split by guards Marreon Jackson and Jamiya Neal.
The poor free-throw shooting allowed the Ospreys to hang around with the Sun Devils in the second half. A Jalen Graham floater midway through the half gave the Sun Devils a 10-point advantage with a little over 10 minutes to go. But over the next five minutes, the visitors chopped it down to two with a 12-4 run.
Facing the prospect of another game against a surely beatable opponent slipping away, Arizona State needed a spark. They found it with Marreon Jackson.
Jackson had been hurt prior to the first game against Portland. He missed both his 3-pointers against UC Riverside. Late in the second half, the former MAC Player of the Year stood up and hit two clutch 3-pointers in the midst of a personal 8-0 run to ice the game.
“The last two games I was pressing, trying to get comfortable with a new team,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t really stressed about my offense. I knew it was going to come around, I’ve been doing this.”
The Sun Devils will hit the road for the first time this season and prepare for their toughest non-conference opponent yet in San Diego State. Very relevant to the Sun Devils’ hopes in that game is the health of Marcus Bagley, who did not play in the second half with reported knee discomfort.
Hurley was asked if he was concerned about Bagley’s health.
“I am. I want to see what the doctors say,” Hurley said. “Then we’ll get a plan for it tomorrow. We’ve had some setbacks over the last few weeks with it. He made strides, and was doing very well with it, and this is another minor step back.”
Luther Muhammad was also absent from the lineup for violating team rules, but Hurley expects him to return for the next game.
In their last two games, Arizona State has had it come down to the final minutes. The team lost Thursday after a shot Hurley described as “one in ten-thousand,” and won on Monday.
Maybe that’s growth. If it is, then San Diego State will be a good measuring stick for progress. If it isn’t, it will be a reminder of how far the Sun Devils still have to go to contend in the Pac-12.