After a double-digit loss to Colorado on Friday night, Arizona State forward Jalen Graham acknowledged the pandemic-related delay from late December to mid-January had impacted the team’s play on the court, but maintained he was not using any crutch to explain away poor performance.
On Monday afternoon, playing one of those ubiquitously rescheduled games at a strange time against the Utah Utes (8-9, 1-6 Pac-12), Graham made certain no excuse would be necessary in the post game media session. With less than five seconds remaining, the junior cashed in on a running floater to give the Sun Devils (6-9, 2-3) a 64-62 victory, their first in over a month.
For Graham, it was his second quality game in a row. After struggling early in the season, and subsequently being benched by Bobby Hurley, Graham has recaptured the form that was absent through much of the first month of the season. In his last two contests, Graham has 28 points, more than half of his point total before this weekend.
“I’ve been here for three years,” Graham said. “I know I’m going to get on the floor, I just need to produce.”
The Sun Devils squandered the fantastic performance by Graham on Friday night with disastrous shooting from the field. On Monday afternoon against the Utes, several other Sun Devils bounced back onto the score sheet in a big way.
Kimani Lawrence, who alternated between looking despondent and exasperated on Friday night during a two-point, 1 for 8 shooting performance, played his best game since the mid-December contest against San Francisco. Against Utah, the elder statesman on the team matched his point total from Dec. 19 with a team-high 18 points on an efficient 9 for 14 shooting from the field.
“Kimani was a guy that when I left the facility (yesterday),” Hurley said. “I had a good feeling about the way he would compete today. I knew he was going to bring energy and effort.”
Considering the pedigree transfer guard Marreon Jackson brought in from Toledo, the reality of his maiden season with the Sun Devils has fallen maddeningly short of expectations offensively. But like Lawrence, Monday was also Jackson’s day of redemption.
It’s not to say Jackson has failed a significant impact on the team. His leadership, especially through this uncertain season, has been welcomed and often necessary. He is oftentimes the most energized player on the court, and remains one of the team’s toughest defenders.
Against Utah, he continued his fantastic defense, but added 10 points offensively to go with a team-leading four assists. In what has been a rigidly sterile Sun Devil offense, Jackson is oftentimes the sole player looking to create. It was Jackson’s dish to Graham on the right elbow that set up the game-winning shot.
For all the offensive inconsistency this season, and there has been plenty to view and review since it tipped off in November, the team defense has been the most consistent aspects. Team blocks is the one statistic where the Sun Devils rank inside the top-ten nationally.
On Monday, the shooting got even worse, with ghastly splits of 41.5/26.9/25.0. The defense, however, got even better. Despite sending the Utes to the line 20 times, the Sun Devils held their opponents to 35 percent from the field and 25 percent from three. The Utes also turned the ball over 14 times, and the Sun Devils capitalized for 21 points, a category they bested Utah in by a wide margin of 21-5.
The game was back-and-forth throughout, and the winning team led for less time than the losing team. Back-and-forth should not always qualify as high-quality basketball. This game was oftentimes far from it. But one team made the plays down the stretch when it counted, and once again, it was the unit under the direction of Hurley, who is now 7-1 in his last two-possession Pac-12 games.
The Sun Devils needed this win. Not for anything related to the standings or postseason aspirations. They needed it for themselves. Sure, it came against a team that has actually been worse overall than they’ve been this season, but it’s still a win. That’s not something the team has been able to say since a Dec. 14 win over Creighton.
Keep this in mind: In the last four games before their season screeched to a halt, the Sun Devils were 3-1. The tentative schedule, which is always subject to change in a season like this, features two ranked opponents in the next three games. The road will get no easier through a conference that is one of the best in the country.
At least the team can face that stretch knowing they’ve seen themselves ahead in the final score in 2022.
Next up for Arizona State is a road game against Stanford this Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. MST.