(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
While it was not the blowout victory it looked like early, the Arizona Sun Devils got conference play started off on the right foot Friday, earning a 98-93 victory over the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto.
The Sun Devils have struggled out of the gate this season during the non-conference schedule. This game held a different pattern. Led by two threes from junior guard Kodi Justice, the Devils hit 3-4 shots to start the game and opened an early lead.
Once the Devils early hot streak ran cold, Stanford responded back. A three pointer from forward Dorian Pickens gave the Cardinal a 23-21 lead, with ASU missing four straight shots during that stretch.
The Devils recovered and held a lead through the rest of the half, relying on the three shot as per their MO. Arizona State finished the game with 40 percent of its points coming from deep, shooting 13-24 from that range.
While Stanford seemed resigned to heading into the second half with a close deficit, ASU had other plans. Starting at the 7:41 mark, the Devils made 11 of 13 field goals approaching the break. The monster run proved to be decisive, as ASU went into halftime leading 52-39. ASU shot a red-hot 58 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes.
The leader of the charge was ASU’s spark plug extraordinaire, senior guard Torian Graham. He finished the game with a season-high 30 points on 12-17 shooting. During the Sun Devils world-beating stretch to close the first half, he hit five of six shots including a three with one second left on the clock.
The Devils cooled down early after the break, and Stanford pounced on its chance once again to close the gap. Pickens and guard Marcus Sheffield worked the Sun Devils inside, and the Cardinal pulled within three. A pair of triples from ASU helped restore order to the offense for the time being.
Where the Sun Devils really began to struggle was inside, as to be expected. Despite shooting 50 percent from three in the second, they shot 41 percent overall. Senior forward Obinna Oleka shot 1-6 in the second half, facing constant pressure as the Devils tried to establish stronger inside presence.
While ASU only had 16 points in the paint overall, the sheer volume of their three-point shooting secured a win, as it has numerous times this season.
The Cardinal gave ASU a major scare at the end, putting together a run of three layups and a three to pull within four with about a minute left. When Stanford fouled to extend the game, the Devils handled their business at the line. ASU finished the game with 33 makes from the charity stripe in 43 tries, maintaining their reputation as a solid team at the line.
Fouls became the story of this game, with the two teams combining for 52 personals. Three players fouled out, including Justice and Holder down the stretch.
Holder played second fiddle on Friday, finishing with 25 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He shot 6-11 from the floor and 10-12 from the foul line. With four minutes left in the game, no other Sun Devil besides Graham was in double figures. Shannon Evans eventually reached there, scoring 15 points with 12 made FTs.
Sheffield and Reid Travis did give ASU’s defense fits on the other end, putting up 35 and 21 points respectively. However, the key factor did come from the depth. Stanford had five players take the floor and fail to score a point.
Despite the lead being fairly fickle, the victory puts the Sun Devils (8-6) in an optimal spot to start Pac-12 play. While Stanford (11-3) isn’t ranked, the Sun Devils proved that they could play up to their competition when things are going right. In such a tough conference, that ability can be meaningful. The Sun Devils begin 2017 with a trip to Berkley to face Cal on Jan. 1.