When the college basketball calendar turns to March, war breaks out. One side can have the size, strength, and numerical advantage over their opponent, but in this month, it is pure grit and determination that will win the day.
This 2020-21 Arizona State Sun Devil team was expected to glide through the regular season. They were led by experience, and fortified by promising young talent.
But the trials of this season have turned a raw group of individuals wearing ASU colors into a battle tested unit that will scrap for every point, crash for every rebound, and jab for any turnover they can get.
On Wednesday, the eighth-seeded Sun Devils played ugly, but forced their opponent, the No. 9 seeded Washington State Cougars, to play even worse. When the dust cleared, Arizona State was victorious with a 64-59 victory.
The top story of Wednesday’s game was the turnovers, 33 in total. The Cougars turned the ball over 20 times, with freshman forward Dishon Jackson accounting for almost half with seven.
“It’s been our bread-and-butter all year, trying to be that way, pick up. Our guards are unselfish with their energy on that end of the floor,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “We’re doing far better at providing help in the paint and closing out the shooters. So that was I think a real positive thing for our defense today.”
Repeatedly turning the ball over, and struggling to put the ball in the basket, the Cougars were almost asking for the knockout blow late in the second half. ASU could not deliver it, missing all its three-point attempts in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Although the three-point shot wasn’t falling at the rate the Sun Devils normally need to win, senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. played one of his most complete games of the season on Wednesday.
He tallied a season-high 26 points to go with six rebounds, two assists, and two steals. The highlight of the game, and maybe the season, for Verge was this driving reverse-layup to put the Sun Devils ahead with just over a minute to play.
“Zo’s had a lot of practice taking those type of shots. I mean, he’s a tough shot maker,” Hurley said. “He had to beat his man and then put enough loft on his shot to score it over help defense. So that was a hell of a play and in a critical moment.”
That layup was nothing out of the ordinary for Verge, who has made a name for himself in Tempe by connecting on shots with a high-degree of difficulty.
“Really, just previously me being at [junior college] and just I always been that type of player to just make difficult, weird shots and that’s just how I’ve always been,” Verge said. “When you put in the work, you just trust the results.”
As for the rest of the backcourt, will the real Remy Martin please stand up? Because the man currently wearing No. 1 for the Sun Devils is not the same Martin who scored 20 points or more in eight consecutive games, including 23 points and the game-winning shot against this same Washington State team on Feb. 27.
Coming off two games of eight and six points, Martin struggled again against the Cougars.
To his credit, Martin never let his poor shooting affect his effort on the defensive end, as the senior guard came away with three steals, one less than his season-high of four against Stanford in January.
“We beat a good basketball team and we did it without our best player having a normal game that he’s capable of having,” Hurley said. “But you said it, he did make significant plays with the rebound and that steal were very important.”
The Cougars, despite the turnovers, were still alive late in the game thanks to the return of their senior guard Isaac Bonton, who scored 19.
The main difference between Bonton’s team-high and Verge’s team-high is simple. Bonton received little help from his teammates, and Verge did.
Jaelen House, ASU’s sophomore guard, showed up in the spotlight as well after a collective effort with eight points, six rebounds, five assists and a team-high three steals.
He was all over the court, and his speed in transition buoyed the Sun Devils whenever the team energy began to sink.
“That kid is, he has a motor where in order to get that motor out of him, you have to rip out his heart, like, literally,” Verge said of his teammate House. “That kid, he does everything that other people don’t want to do. Those are the type of people you need on your team because they don’t complain, they don’t worry about shot selection, they just go out there and they just play.”
March isn’t about playing style, rotation minutes, or point averages. None of those looked particularly good for the Sun Devils on Wednesday.
March is solely about making the two or three plays that will lead to a win. In this game, ASU accomplished that, and kept its season alive for at least one more night.
Top-seeded Oregon awaits tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. MST. The game can be seen on the Pac-12 Network.