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ASU Men’s Basketball: Freshman Sam Cunliffe and the rest of the Sun Devils exploded for 127 points Wednesday afternoon

(Photo: Eliav Gabay/WCSN)

For the old-fashioned, defensive-minded basketball fan, the matchup at Wells Fargo Arena this afternoon was a sight for sore-eyes, as a shootout between the Arizona State Sun Devils and the Citadel Bulldogs ended with a 127-110 victory for ASU.

The Bulldogs run-and-gun style posed an intimidating challenge to the Devils’ inconsistent defense. The Citadel set a school record for points earlier this season and averages over 100 per game, whilst the Sun Devils have been averaging in the low 80’s coming into this matchup.

Arizona State tied their second-best mark in program history with 127 points with an outburst of scoring. The Devils shot 53.8 percent from the field and 48.4 percent from long range. Their top six in minutes all scored in double figures, with four players reaching the 20-point mark.

“I was pleased to see the ball go through the basket, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “We scored the ball a lot better than we did in Florida, particularly our last game.”

Both teams got started with the three-point gunning early. Four of ASU’s first six shots were from behind the line. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs took two minutes and four shots to make it to the down low at the rim.

Early on, the Sun Devils looked staunch on defense. The Bulldogs started out making two of their first 11 threes in the early-going. The Devils went on an 8-0 run to increase the lead to double digits early in the half.

From then on, the game followed a run-heavy path. ASU was able to generate efficient offense for several stretches, but also surrender points on the other end. Every time the Sun Devils looked to close the book, a run from Citadel kept the game interesting.

The fast pace of the Bulldogs proved difficult to keep up with for 40 minutes. They shot 4-19 from deep in the first half, but were able to wear down ASU’s defense enough to go 9-18 in the second. ASU faced a few problems switching and was worn down later on.

“I feel like it is [hard],” junior guard Shannon Evans said of keeping up with such a fast team. “At the same time, you’ve got to do it, you know. You can’t let teams score 110 on you.”

Arizona State once again used the charity stripe to its advantage. The Sun Devils shot 37 free throws compared to 16 for the Bulldogs. So far this season, ASU has used the new hand checking rules to draw contact with their aggressive guards on repeat occasions.

Another player whose aggression made an impact was freshman Sam Cunliffe. The former top 50 recruit has seen his numbers rise slightly game by game. On Wednesday, that steady rise became an explosion.

Cunliffe went off for 23 points, a team high and more than double his previous high of 11, and secured 10 boards while shooting 7-12 from the floor. It was a breakout performance for for the highly touted Freshman , who has been forced to adjust to playing more like a power forward given ASU’s lack of size.

“He’s just looking more and more relaxed and comfortable with what we’re doing, and he’s throwing himself into both ends of the floor,” Hurley said.

Cunliffe shot perfectly from the floor in the second half, going 4-4 from the field and 6-6 from the charity stripe after missing his first three from the line.

The other standout performance was junior guard Kodi Justice. Justice’s three-point shooting sparked a late first half run for the Devils, who led 55-45 at the break. It was a welcome turnaround for Justice, who has struggled a bit early in the season.

“I might have struggled here and there, but we have so many great players who can score the ball that it didn’t affect me mentally,” Justice said.

Justice fouled out late in the second half, but finished third on the team with 20 points. Junior guard Tra Holder finished second with 22, and rebounded from a rough first half to shoot 50 percent for the game.

The Sun Devils now prepare to head to the Bahamas to play No. 1 Kentucky on Monday before returning to Tempe at the start of December.

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