Jalen Graham bounded down the concrete floor in the locker room hallway at Desert Financial Arena. His smile radiating off the yellow-splashed bricks that line the walls.
“Let’s go!” the junior guard exclaimed, as his tall and lanky frame weaved in and out of reporters, photographers, team personnel, and anyone lucky enough to witness the jovial demeanor of Graham. After the final game of the regular season, his team that was directionless and uninspired at the beginning of the season had completed a remarkable turnaround to play the best basketball in the Pac-12 conference for the last month.
Weeks after a demoralizing loss to Washington put the team at 3-9 in conference play, Arizona State fought off a furious outside shooting performance from Stanford to win 65-56 and end the season at 10-10 in the Pac-12, and 14-16 overall.
“I have tremendous belief in them,” Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley said about his team. “What we have been able to do is pretty remarkable considering where we were and how tough this league is.”
The Sun Devils have now won four straight games for the first time all season. In those four games, the team that couldn’t score in November, December and January outscored their opponents by a combined 55 points.
It has been a long time since the Sun Devils felt this good about their prospects. Last year, pandemic stops and starts suppressed what could have been a special year. This year, more COVID-19 issues and a roster almost completely unfamiliar with one another led to an initial lack of cohesion as growing pains were worked through.
In the midst of pressure from the fanbase and repeated flat performances from his team, Hurley stayed the course. He met with his players one-on-one, encouraging them, even empathizing at times with how foreign the experience of team-building has been during the era of social distancing, mask wearing and regular game and practice absences.
“I think he’s done a great job this year,” Sun Devil forward Kimani Lawrence said about his coach of five years. “Especially with all the challenges we faced with COVID, shutdowns, completely new team, new staff. He’s done a great job with the circumstances.”
The Sun Devils morphed from a team expected to score high numbers into one of the conference’s stingiest defenses. Against Stanford, the Sun Devils forced 21 turnovers and allowed just 16 points in the paint.
“There’s not as much pressure on all the guards to have to create everything,” Hurley said. “When we do get it to Kimani and Jalen Graham they do a good job for the most part of getting things done, scoring in the paint.”
“Now, we’re seeing doubles. That’s how effective Jalen has been and Kimani.”
Marreon Jackson, the graduate transfer from Toledo who admittedly lost his confidence as he battled a nagging hand injury throughout the season, turned in perhaps his most complete performance as a Sun Devil this season.
“I had to go all the way back to the basics to get my confidence back,” Jackson said. “We’re on the right path, that’s the only thing that matters right now. We caught fire at the right time.”
The guard was a force on both sides of the ball. He led the team with 18 points, six rebounds, six assists. On the defensive end, he was a ubiquitous presence with six steals. It seemed as if anytime Stanford was ready to build on their first half lead or tear away the Sun Devils’ second half lead, there was Jackson with another rip and a fast break bucket.
His 3-point shot never touched the respectable percentage numbers he shot at Toledo, but he adapted. After attempting over eight 3-pointers per game in his last two years as a Rocket, he turned that number down to just above five per game this season.
His game today exemplified his transformation as he led the team in scoring despite an 0-for-6 number from beyond the arc.
The Sun Devils had one of their better offensive performances inside the paint this season. Jalen Graham, who has come on in the latter half of the season, was second to Jackson with 16 points. Lawrence and Alonzo Gaffney added 13 points as well. As a team, the Sun Devils scored 40 points in the paint.
The presence inside allowed the Sun Devils to mitigate the Cardinal barrage from outside. Whatever good spirits were present in the arena at the beginning of the game were almost banished as Stanford’s Spencer Jones made his first three 3-point attempts and the Cardinal built a 22-13 advantage.
Self-inflicted mistakes was what cost the Cardinal a chance to expand upon the lead and put the Sun Devils in serious trouble. Eight Cardinal turnovers in eight minutes allowed the Sun Devils to launch a 12-2 run to retake the lead on a Jackson steal and score with 4:40 remaining in the first half.
The Cardinal recovered and kept the contest close, even retaking the lead at multiple points, but never grew out of their one-dimensional 3-point offense. In the second half, Brandon Angel took the place of Jones from the first half and shot 3-for-4 from outside to keep the Cardinal afloat.
As a team, the Cardinal had over 50 percent of their points come from 3-pointers. On the other side of the coin were the Sun Devils shooting just 2-for-17 and 11.8 percent from distance.
In recent years, the program that has branded itself as “Guard U” oftentimes needed to make a high percentage of 3-pointers to win. That was not the case today, as the Sun Devils had their fifth-best shooting percentage from the field this season at 49 percent.
After a corner 3-pointer from Angel gave Stanford the lead 52-51 nearing the final stages, the Sun Devils unleashed a 9-0 run filled with fast break points off the back of great defensive plays.
With the wind at their backs and a comfortable advantage, the most cathartic play of the game occurred in the final 30 seconds.
Lawrence caught a pass from Jackson ahead of the pack in the open court. There have been frustrating moments for Lawrence during his five years in Tempe, but it seemed like any and all of it was shattered with a thunderous windmill dunk.
“I’m going to miss everything about Arizona State,” Lawrence said. “It will probably hit more when I get home.”
Lawrence gave a brief smile. His teammates were in raptures behind him. It was fitting. The stoic leader of the Sun Devil basketball team and the ecstatic Heath and Gaffney behind him. Two players celebrating their forward in their first year playing with him like they had been there for all five.
“Off the court, we like each other,” Jackson said. “I think we’re around each other every other day. If it’s not the whole team, it’s a couple of people together. We’re very close.”
Arizona State will be the No. 8 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament. A very familiar opponent will meet them on Wednesday afternoon in Las Vegas as Stanford ended its season as the No. 9 seed.
Tip-off for that game will be 1 p.m., MST. The game will be aired on the Pac-12 Network.