The noise emanating from the crowd in Omaha, Nebraska was deafening. So loud it almost drowned the PA announcer for the Creighton Bluejays (8-3) alerting the crowd there was one minute remaining in regulation.
The score was deadlocked. Yet another low-scoring, bare-knuckle fistfight of a basketball game. It was intense pressure on this Arizona State basketball team (5-6) still in its early stages of playing together.
It took three seconds for the Sun Devils to find their defining moment of the young season. Forward Jalen Graham ripped a pass from the wing to guard Jay Heath, who was cutting along the baseline. Heath, who had gotten behind the defense, slid in for the decisive two points that put the Sun Devils up 58-56.
The Sun Devils survived a potential game-tying two free throws from the Bluejays, and then forced a Bluejays miss on final possession to secure their best win of the season by the score of 58-57.
On this night, the pressure turned the Sun Devils into diamonds. The team that at one point was losers of five consecutive games is now rolling with three straight victories won through an abundance of grit.
Two Sundays ago, overtime was needed to win 69-67 against Oregon. Last Thursday, the Sun Devils defended a late rally against cross-town rival GCU to win 67-62.
On Tuesday night, the Sun Devils fought back from a 40-32 second half deficit in their most hostile road test of the season.
Three players scored in double figures for the Sun Devils, each of them guards. DJ Horne (12) led the team in scoring. Jay Heath (10) and Marreon Jackson (10) made plays down the stretch when they were absolutely necessary.
For a team that struggled so much with its free-throw shooting during the losing streak, the Sun Devils didn’t miss an attempt from the charity stripe until the final seconds, when a miss from Heath opened the door for a potential game-winner from Bluejays guard Ryan Nembhard, who missed a difficult shot after he was swarmed by Sun Devils at the top of the key.
For coach Bobby Hurley, it was more evidence that any program should want him in charge of a team entering a tough road contest.
Since the 2015-16 season, Arizona State has gone 9-3 in these non-conference road games. It’s made even more notable because the program had won just eight in the previous 30 seasons.
The improvement of this team since its return from the brutal four-game stretch in the Bahamas has been clear, and it begins with the visible increase in trust on offense.
Perhaps it is simply the players becoming more comfortable with each other as the season has gone on. The wild passes that sail out of bounds or the miscommunication under the basket has been severely diminished.
Against Creighton, the Sun Devils turned it over just nine times, and had a plus-5 turnover margin. The ball whipped around the court, and better quality shots followed suit.
Once again, the Sun Devils got contributions throughout the ranks of their rotation. Alonzo Gaffney had eight points in one of his best games as a Sun Devil. Enoch Boakye and Luther Muhammad had eight points between them as well.
In all, it was 22 bench points for the Sun Devils against just eight for the Bluejays.
Possibly even more promising for the Sun Devils is the teamwork of the guards and forwards on offense. Against Creighton, movement away from the ball opened up key buckets.
The Sun Devils will return home on Dec. 19 to host an incredibly tough team in the 10-0 San Francisco Dons A few weeks ago, this might have been a matchup where the Sun Devils would have entered as underdogs. But with momentum on their side, Arizona State will enter that game looking to make a statement.