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ASU Men’s Basketball: Oleka lifts the Sun Devils past Kennesaw State

(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)


A slow start to the season seemed to raise plenty of questions and doubt for head coach Bobby Hurley and his Sun Devils, but since then, they have looked better and better each game and put together their most dominant performance of the season in their third game. The final of a three-game homestand concluded in a 91-53 victory over Kennesaw State, and ASU has found all sorts of momentum heading to Brooklyn.

“It was a good win for us,” Hurley said. “It’s hard not to feel good about ourselves tonight.”

This game was all ASU from the opening tip. Its 8-0 run to start the game lasted until the 16:14 mark in the first half, and the Sun Devils opened the game on a 21-8 run. What made this game different from the Belmont victory was who was doing the scoring.

Sophomore guard Tra Holder and junior forward Obinna Oleka had their struggles in the win over Belmont, but the first half of this game was a different story. Holder’s 10 points and Oleka’s six points on 3-for-5 shooting helped push ASU out to an early lead.

Oleka ended up being the game’s leading scorer with 19 points and adding six rebounds.

“I kind of needed to get my feet a little wet,” Oleka said. “First two games I was kind of anxious, you know what I mean? Fouling, not playing well, but the third game right here I calmed down a little bit.”

While quieter names showed up in the scoring column, the Sun Devils continued to improve on the glass. At one point in the first half, they outrebounded Kennesaw State 14 to 2, and outrebounded them 53 to 24 for the game.

One of the reasons for this was having everybody rebound. Holder and senior guard Gerry Blakes grabbed 11 rebounds together in the first half, and 16 for the game. Blakes had a career-high 12 rebounds.

“Just getting after it,” Blakes said. “I feel like going to the glass is big for me. I think as guards we have to do that to help our team.”

Despite the 11-point halftime lead, the Sun Devils had just as many turnovers, and a large chunk of them were unforced. Kennesaw State found itself in a hole despite taking care of the ball better, and making more threes. ASU made its first three with 6:26 left in the first half, and that was the only one they made before halftime. ASU shot 6-for-20 for the game.

ASU quickly extended its 11-point halftime lead to 18 at the 16-minute mark thanks to a three from Blakes which sparked the run. The shot was Blakes’ first field goal of the game, and he finished with eight points.

“I was 0-for-2 in the first half but I didn’t really panic,” Blakes said. “It was like a long game, so I just stuck with it and I guess everything worked itself out.”

The lead was built to 21 halfway through the second half largely thanks to free throw shooting. At this point in the game they were 11-for-15, and finished the game shooting 70.6 percent. ASU also took much better care of the ball in the first 10 minutes, not turning the ball over one time since the first half.

With around six minutes left to go in the game, ASU held a 68-46 lead, had three players in double-digits, and two others with nine. The Sun Devils were outrebounding Kennesaw State by 19, and still had yet to turn the ball over.

“We’ve been getting nailed with the illegal screens, that was a few of the turnovers,” Hurley said. “I’m not thrilled with that number, obviously we talked about that at halftime and one of our game keys today was a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and we didn’t meet that goal, but zero in the second half was a really good number for us.”

Kennesaw State at the last media timeout was shooting 33 percent from the floor, 28 percent from three, and 50 percent from the free throw line. ASU at that point was on a 12-0 run and made their last four shot attempts, while Kennesaw State missed their last four.

The final punch for ASU came late in the game when the three walk-ons entered. Sophomore guard Austin Witherill, and freshmen guards Shazier Lawson and Tyler Harris saw game action for the first time this season, and Witherill was the only one to score making a three-pointer.

ASU will conclude their Legends Classic heading to Brooklyn for Monday’s matchup with NC State.

“I’m really excited,” Blakes said. “Me personally, I feel like we’re all excited for this opportunity… Going into this we kind of understand the importance of these games and we’re going to try and maximize this opportunity.”


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