(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Despite giving them a few scares in the first half, the Arizona State Sun Devils sent fans at Wells Fargo Arena home happy with a 96-74 win over the Cal Poly Mustangs on Sunday night.
As they did in their season opener against Portland State, the Sun Devils got off to another slow start offensively. They started 1-5 from the floor before taking a one-point lead off three straight buckets.
The Sun Devils got the gap near double digits early, but the Mustangs came roaring back. They began opening three-man half-court traps on junior guards Tra Holder and Shannon Evans, forcing two of ASU’s top scorers to pass up drives to the rim. While the two did a good job of moving the ball, their surrounding cast missed a few open shots.
“I just try to draw as much as I can and kick it to my guys,” Evans said. “We preach that at practice, the drive-and-kick.”
Cal Poly eventually went on a hot streak, shooting 10-12 between the 9:30 and 2:00 minute marks of the first half, including five 3-pointers. Cal relied on the deep ball all game, shooting 12 0f 32 from that range. Meanwhile, ASU went the last 5:21 of the first half without making a field goal. They led only 39-38 at the break.
Towards the middle of the second half, ASU started to get calls while on the attack. They went four minutes without a field goal but had 10 points, all from free throws by Obinna Oleka and Evans.
Attacking the rim became a key for the Sun Devils’ offense. Holder and Evans faced frequent switches from Cal Poly’s forwards, especially 6-foot-8-inch senior Zach Gordon. Using his determination at the rim and high-level body control, Holder was able to take advantage. He finished with a team-best 24 points and went 7-11 from the charity stripe.
The free-throw line became a treasure trove for ASU. The frequent switches as well as physical interior play gave the Sun Devils an advantage. The Sun Devils took advntage of the NCAA’s new rules regarding fouls and attacked Cal Poly relentlessly. Arizona State shot a total of 42 free throws and made 79 percent of them.
“It’s the way that the rules are designed to be called,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “Hand checking is going to be strictly enforced and the dribbler will be protected.”
The second half also brought the return of productive ball movement. ASU had two assists in the first half, but finished with 12. Once the Mustangs got away from the hard traps, ASU was able to return to drive-and-kick ball and get the offense in rhythm.
“While the assist totals aren’t what I’d hoped for or what I anticipated early, they’re fouling us a lot because their five men can’t guard Shannon and Tra,” Hurley said
Senior guard Torian Graham once again injected life into the ASU offense. He hit everything from a floater to a pull-up jumper to a dunk in his 18-point performance. Hurley tried to inject him into the lineup quickly, bringing him from the bench only three minutes into the action. The coach praised his ability to make a variety of different shots, especially his step back jumper.
Oleka similarly had a strong game in all facets. He finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds. He shot 1-2 from three and did a solid job fighting on the interior. He was also frequently tasked with defending junior forward Josh Martin, Cal Poly’s most dangerous weapon.
“I thought Obi rebounded the ball great in the first game and he backed it up tonight, and he was more efficient on offense,” Hurley said.
Martin took over for stretches of the game, finishing with 17 points and 7 rebounds after having 17 and 21 against Pepperdine in the Mustangs’ opener. Cal was led in scoring by senior guard Kyle Toth, who posted 21 points with five made threes.
The Sun Devils 96 points is the second most of the Hurley era, just one bucket shy of the 98 points they scored against Houston Baptist on Dec. 19, 2015.
ASU secured a strong win once the offense got flowing, but there are still concerns. Both the defense and the offense abandoned ASU at various stretches. Against top tier competition in the Pac-12 or elsewhere, those stretches can be game-ending.
Still, two wins is two wins, and ASU has made the right plays to get both by convincing scoring margins. The Sun Devils now head to Orlando for the week to face Northern Iowa to start the Tire Pros Invitational.