Finals week may have come and gone for Arizona State students, but the Sun Devils are taking their winter break course of Winning 101 very seriously. In their biggest test yet, Bobby Hurley’s boys did just enough to pass as they gutted out a 73-71 victory over the favored Creighton Blue Jays.
In a hold-your-breath type contest, ASU’s physical defense went toe-to-toe with one of the nation’s most offensively skilled teams for all 40 minutes. Playing without star big man Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Blue Jays showcased their top-30 efficient offense in the second half and became the first team to reach 70 points on the Sun Devils this season. Unfortunately for Blue Jay head coach Greg McDermott, Bobby Hurley’s defense once again showed up when it mattered, giving ASU that extra push to put them over the top in Las Vegas.
Not often this season has Hurley had to throw together lineups in response to foul trouble. But when Desmond Cambridge, DJ Horne, and Warren Washington all picked up two fouls in the first half, Hurley had to get creative. At the break, the Sun Devils were controlling the boards and held a six-point advantage, courtesy of Horne’s 12 points.
Observing the Devils’ aggressive defending, Creighton exploited that to draw six fouls within the first four minutes of the half. This strategy forced both Horne and Cambridge, two of the team’s top scorers, to the bench, leading to offensive stagnation.
With ASU’s premier weapons in foul trouble, the dynamic Jays offense quickly overcame its second-lowest-scoring half of the season to take a 50-40 lead midway through the second half with a 16-0 run, aided by some questionable whistles and the emergence of the backup big man Fred King.
In their second straight game facing a double-digit deficit, the Sun Devils were able to overcome the adversity and turn the tide in their favor. Following what seemed to be the start of Creighton’s takeoff, Desmond Cambridge Jr. cut the Creighton lead to three with a trio of deep balls. Had it not been for early and often foul trouble for the sixth-year forward, Cambridge could’ve done a lot more damage than his 19 points and five threes already did.
Sensing the pressure, Creighton kept the pedal to the metal, forcing a fourth foul onto Cambridge and pushing the lead back up to seven. Like they have done multiple times this year, Arizona State clawed back.
Coming into the night, Arizona State had averaged 13 turnovers per game, a number that was expected to increase with the up-tempo style Creighton runs under McDermott. Not only did ASU slow the game down as they worked the deficit down, but they limited their turnovers. Eight turnovers in the contest was the first time this season the Sun Devils have kept the turnover number under double digits.
With Desmond Cambridge and DJ Horne in foul trouble, and Frankie Collins scuffling through an off-night, the Sun Devils needed a jolt to stay alive in the game. Playing his first meaningful minutes since a breakout showing in the Legends Classic, freshman guard Austin Nunez was an unlikely contributor to keep Creighton from pulling away. His 10 points, including a massive three-pointer to shrink the Blue Jays’ lead to four with six minutes left, would prove vital to the comeback effort.
Doing the things that don’t show up in the box score, Jamiya Neal was also a key contributor off the bench with six points while acting as a ball-handler and on-ball defender of three-level-scorer Arthur Kaluma, whom Neal held to 3-of-13 shooting. Overall, ASU’s reserves would combine for 23 bench points on 42 percent shooting, in comparison to Creighton’s seven on 18 percent.
With the bench guys making huge plays, big man Warren Washington, who had not scored a single point all night to that point, got going at the right time to drop in two free throws and a tip-in to level the score at 65 as the under-four media timeout hit.
The final four minutes resembled a mud fight more so than that of a basketball game. With loose balls aplenty and bodies hitting the floor, ASU’s depth and toughness would have to show up in crunch time. And like it did against Tarleton State, VCU, Colorado, and Stanford, that’s exactly what happened.
A Devan Cambridge alley-oop from his brother would give ASU a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish with just over three minutes to play. A Washington lay-up and free throw gave the Devils the insurance to withstand Kaluma’s drought-breaking three with two to play.
Desmond’s pull-up splash from mid-range would be countered by Scheiermann, before Creighton was forced to foul and send Collins to the foul line with a one-point lead and 12 seconds on the clock. Missing one but making the other, the Sun Devils’ defense stepped up when it mattered most as Creighton’s last shot was errant.
Easily the team’s most impactful win to date, the Sun Devils now move to 10-1 on the heels of an eight-game win streak, its second-longest run in the last decade. Should they topple the Torreros of San Diego on Sunday, it’ll be awfully hard to keep Sparky from making his first appearance in the AP Poll in over two years come next Monday.