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ASU Men’s Basketball: Sun Devils shake off the rust with an exhibition victory

(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)

As one might expect from a matchup against a D-III school, Arizona State comfortably handled its business in the final game before the start of the regular season with a 98-53 win against the UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs on Thursday night in Tempe.

It took ASU a little while to warm up during the team’s first public game of the 2016-17 season. The Slugs came at ASU hard and fast, owning five of the first seven made shots of the game, including two three-pointers.

Junior guard Tra Holder, who finished third on the team with 15 points, took the foul on a layup attempt in the early going to halt the Slugs run and hit two free throws. From there, the Sun Devils awoke, going on a 19-5 run to take control of the game.

The Slugs played aggressive defense, trapping players off picks and frantically double-teaming the ball handler. ASU responded to the pressure with flashy yet successful ball movement. They began to exploit UCSC’s aggression by absorbing contact. They forced 13 fouls in the first half and went  11-14 from the charity stripe.

The Banana Slugs eventually tightened the gap to three. They struggled to break through ASU’s defense, but weren’t afraid to take contested jumpers, which they managed to hit. ASU kept attacking the rim, with Andre Adams, Sam Cunliffe and Obinna Oleka all hitting layups and/or free throws to put the Devils up 10.

The gap never fell to single digits again. The Devils ended the half on a 13-0 run to close the first 46-23. The Devils didn’t hit a three-point shot after the 11:47 mark until senior forward Torian Graham hit three straight from deep in the span of 33 seconds to close out the half.

Graham, a transfer from Buffalo became the hero of the hour. He put up 11 points in the first half but hit two layups and two threes to double that total in about nine minutes in the second half. He finished with a team-best 23 points to go along with three rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Arizona State continued to force the issue in the post after the break. Oleka single-handedly went on a seven-point run early in the half. After a rough first half shooting the three-ball, the Devils knocked down two straight from deep to increase the lead to 29 points, and eventually, the Devils’ lead peaked at 45.

The Devils’ defense also stepped up, forcing 21 turnovers and blocking six shots. They also avoided fouls, giving UCSC only eight chances at the line.

Junior guard Corey Cilia led the way for UCSC with 13 points. Sophomore Will Crain, the Slugs leading scorer last season, posted 11 points and seven boards before fouling out with five minutes left in the game.

The Devils closed on a 7-0 run to secure the win.

The game ball certainly goes to Graham, who put on a dominant scoring display at Wells Fargo Arena. If Graham can put up performances like that in the regular season, he’ll win over the hearts of Sun Devil fans quickly.

If there is one thing to be concerned about, it was the shooting. ASU shot 5-16 from deep in the first half. They found their stroke and went 6-13 in the second, which is progress. However, seeing that many possessions go without points against equal competition may cost them.

With the preseason completed, ASU now has the start of games that count in the standings just around the corner. They’ll open the season against Portland State of Friday Nov. 11 at home.

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