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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils take down Portland in season opener

Starting off with a win

Syndication: Arizona Republic Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

On an evening where fans were welcomed back inside Desert Financial Arena, Arizona State (1-0) stood above Portland (0-1) in a 76-60 win both on the scoreboard and on the floor.

Sun Devil coach Bobby Hurley had placed an emphasis on gathering height during the offseason after a 2020-21 season where the team finished 332nd in rebound margin. On Tuesday at Desert Financial Arena, that investment in growth was easy to recognize.

This time around, the Sun Devils were ending defensive stops with rebounds, and flipping offensive misses back to themselves for second chance points, from where they scored 20 percent of their total.

“It’s a testament to Hurley bringing in some size this year,” forward Kimani Lawrence said. “That was one of our weaknesses last year. It’s just guys wanting to compete and hold each other accountable.”

Lawrence led the Sun Devils with 19 points on 7-11 shooting. Unsurprisingly, the veteran also added 10 rebounds, another team-high.

Portland was never supposed to own the boards in this matchup, but a 42-27 advantage on the glass is in the ballpark of what Arizona State should have had.

For the first time since March 2020, the Sun Devils took the court to the roaring approval of their fans and the 942 Crew student section. Most season openers have a frenetic few minutes as jitters are shaken out, and tonight’s game was no different for both sides.

Arizona State shot just 1-8 in an ice cold start from the field. Meanwhile, the Pilots could not hold on to the basketball and turned it over six times in the opening three-and-a-half minutes.

“Regardless of playing the exhibition game or the closed scrimmage, there’s still going to be some jitters, guys are pretty juiced to play,” Hurley said.

Hurley described the Pilots as a 3-point shooting team. By that account, the early identity for the Sun Devils must be something similar. Portland attempted 24 shots from long-range. Arizona State shot 26 of their 66 shots from 3-point land.

Mass volume from distance did not equal bulk points for either side. Portland shot just 25 percent on threes. The Sun Devils’ number was just as barren, as the team made 26.9 percent of their three-point attempts. Despite that, Lawrence was not too concerned after the game.

“We can definitely get a lot better shots,” Lawrence said. “In our exhibition games and closed scrimmages we shot it a lot better. I’m confident, those guys shoot 40 percent. Confidence, that’s not going to be a problem for us this year.”

It was good perspective from Lawrence, but recency bias could have played a factor in his response as well. The second half was a nice turnaround from a cold first half from the field, and allowed the Sun Devils to expand their 31-25 halftime advantage into a comfortable 17-point margin midway through the second half.

With nine offseason newcomers to the lineup, Tuesday was also a night of first impressions. Several players impressed in their first minutes as Sun Devils.

Two former Ohio State Buckeyes in guard Luther Muhammad and forward Alonzo Gaffney both scored in double figures, with 10 points and 15 points, respectively. Gaffney was exceptionally efficient, as he went 7-9 and even stepped out beyond the 3-point line to knock down a triple in the second half.

“He had some good moments on offense,” Hurley said. “He just brings a lot of versatility to our team.”

Muhammad managed to put up double-digit scoring even as he performed miserably from distance. Another transfer guard, Marreon Jackson, played 26 minutes but was limited as a scorer after a practice injury two days ago.

It was a win for Arizona State, but not the night offensively Hurley was looking for. Still, it was a positive sign that the Sun Devils could play below their potential and still win comfortably over an opponent they expect to defeat by a comfortable margin.

“To score 76, the way we played and the way we shot I think is a really good sign,” Hurley said. “I don’t think there is going to be too many nights where Luther and Marreon are 1-for-11 from three. That’s not what I’ve been watching through the whole summer and the fall.”

The Sun Devils answered a few questions tonight, but it was still just one game, and this veteran-filled roster knows there are several improvements left to make.

But for tonight, with the sounds of a cheering crowd back in their ears, it was also just good to get a win under their belt. To that, mission accomplished.

Arizona State will host UC Riverside Thursday night. Tip-off is set for 6:30 p.m. and the game can be seen on Pac-12 Network.