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ASU Men’s Basketball: Sun Devils starting to turn heads with strong nonconference performances

(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)

 

It wasn’t a fun Arizona State locker room during halftime of its game against the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.

The Sun Devils found themselves down 12 points and struggling on both ends of the floor. While they were shooting an anemic 29.4 percent, the Rebels shot 58.3 percent and got anywhere they wanted on offense.

ASU head coach Bobby Hurley presented those statistics to his team along with other things that senior guard Gerry Blakes deemed a “wake-up call.”

Going back to the second half of ASU’s game against Kentucky, ASU had given up 77 points on 58 percent shooting and 50 percent shooting from beyond the arc. It was a far cry from where ASU’s defense had been and even further from where its head coach wanted them to be.

And coming out of the locker room, Blakes said: “We woke up.”

What followed was a dominating and inspiring effort from the Sun Devils. They outscored the Rebels 41-19 in the second half en route to another nonconference road victory. On top of all that was the fact that ASU executed that comeback without leading scorer and rebounder Savon Goodman, who was not with the team due to personal reasons.

Undermanned with only eight scholarship player available and undersized against UNLV’s rangy frontcourt, ASU scrambled and scrapped its way to a 43-30 rebounding advantage, including a 16-7 advantage on the offensive glass.

“We’re more gritty and resilient,” ASU sophomore guard Tra Holder said. “I think we just always try to find a way to win. We don’t want to make any excuses. It could be easy for us to say we’re out with one of our best players, so we just try to put that behind us.”

Although the Sun Devils didn’t have many reasons to be optimistic at the halfway point, Holder maintained that his confidence in his team never wavered.

“I think we just really wanted to win,” Holder said. “We were relentless on the defensive end, and I just really try to get into guys and push them because I knew that they (UNLV) were going to let us back in the game because I felt like they were making tough shots in the first half, so I was just trying to get on myself and the wings to close out on the shooters hard, and make them score in the inside with a tough shot.”

Holder posted one of his best games of the season, racking up 19 points (13 in the second half) and nine rebounds. His play in the pick-and-roll forced UNLV redshirt junior forward Ben Carter to foul out with 4:17 remaining and freshman forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. to play with four fouls for the last eight minutes of the game.

“In the first half, I noticed that Zimmerman was in foul trouble, so I was trying to go into his chest,” Holder said. “in the second half, I tried to see what I could do for others because I knew they were going to try to collapse on me.”

Holder’s quality of play along with his awareness did not go unnoticed by his head coach and the NCAA’s all-time leader in assists.

“Tra just impressing me over and over again,” Hurley said. “He’s come really far in his career and his development, and he’s been making big plays for us, and he got us going to start the second half.”

The win was ASU’s fifth top-100 KenPom victory in 10 games. Last year, the Sun Devils racked up six such wins the entire season.

“We’ve put together a high-level, high-quality out of conference (schedule),” Hurley said. “We still have a few games left here, but to win on the road is respected against good teams, and I think UNLV certainly has a very good chance to win their league this year.”

Not only is ASU racking up wins against quality opponents, but it is solid second-half performances that allowed the Sun Devils to beat Creighton on the road after trailing by eight and UNLV after trailing by 12 at the break.

This season, the Sun Devils are averaging over 40 points per game in the second half. They are consistently coming out of the locker room strong and with a clear rise in effort, and when the players are asked about what changes, the arrow consistently points back to the head coach.

“He (Hurley) was once a player himself, so he’s been in these types of situations,” Holder said. “He just really gives us feedback and tells us what we need to improve on and what we need to do to come out with the win.”

The players have spoken about the confidence Hurley instills in them as well as a structure that allows for freedom of play before, but the intensity and hustle the Sun Devils display on the court is as tangible as any improvements they have made this season. As the win seemed all but inevitable, Hurley and his team celebrated – loudly, in Hurley’s case – on the bench.

The Sun Devils have three nonconference games remaining – Houston Baptist, Cal State Bakersfield and Stephen F. Austin – and not one of those three teams rank inside the top-100 according to KenPom. ASU’s next chance to snag a top-100 win will come when it hosts No. 13 Arizona on January 3.

But the fact that ASU has made it through its gauntlet of a nonconference season with wins over then-No. 18 Texas A&M, Creighton, Belmont and UNLV has Sun Devil fans filled with unexpected optimism heading into conference season. The Sun Devils now rank 20th in the RPI (according to ESPN’s Daily RPI) and have surprised many.

In the big-picture, the win over UNLV could have NCAA Tournament implications come March, but until then, the impact on the season is relatively simple according to Holder.

“I’m just excited for us,” Holder said. “It’s a big, momentum win.”

You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at zacpacleb@gmail.com

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