(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
The Arizona State Sun Devils tied a school record for made threes on Thursday, riding their momentum from long range to a 98-62 win over the University of Central Arkansas Bears.
The Sun Devils, as they have in other games this season, unleashed a barrage from behind the arc, going 18-45 from the three-point line. The attempts ranks second in school history, and the 18 made ties a school record which they already matched earlier this season against UNLV on Dec. 3.
“They run a good zone, and the only way to take them out of that zone is to knock them down,” Junior guard Tra Holder said. “Coach told us to keep shooting. We came out slow and sluggish but we picked it up in the second half and got to shooting well.”
A large part of it came out of sheer necessity. The Bears put forth a roster with six players standing 6-foot-7 or taller, and their size disrupted the smaller ASU team, who had only eight points in the paint in the first half and finished with 22 total.
UCA also tried to work the three-point line in the first half as well, but started out a freezing 0-11 from that range and ended the half 1-13. Their scoring came from 22 points in the paint.
ASU came out slow as well on the offensive end. The Devils made only two of their first 10 threes, and a layup from Mathieu Kamba tied the game up at 10 each. The Sun Devils struggled to break through the defense and heaved up several tough shots in the early going.
“We had a tough huddle,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “It wasn’t a fun huddle to be in, but I like the way Tra responded. We were a little bit sloppy in the first couple minutes but the guys were able to gather themselves and turn it around.”
Despite the rocky start, they still stuck to what they know. In the middle of the first half they shot 12 consecutive threes and made seven, giving them a 13-point lead. They then ended the half on an 8-0 run with a pair of threes from Holder and Shannon Evans, making the score 51-28 at the break.
The second half was a similar story, though the 23-point cushion made it easier. ASU started 1-6 from deep on its first nine shots. However, more stout defense and some good work inside the arc helped ASU keep a comfortable gap.
Holder and Evans joined with Torian Graham to form the heart of the Devils’ offensive attack. Graham led with 26, a season high on 10-17 shooting. Evans had 23 and eight assists, and Holder put up 22 and nine dimes.
Despite the three-point explosion, a lot of credit for the victory goes to the defense, as ASU held the Bears to 38.6 percent shooting from the floor. The Devils were aggressive, forcing traveling violations with their tight defense and scoring 24 points off 20 turnovers by UCA. ASU did temper its aggression though, limiting fouls and avoiding too many unforced mistakes on the defensive end, something that they haven’t been able to do on so many occasions before.
The size of the Bears did hurt the Sun Devils in some areas. Whilst ASU lost the rebound battle 46-36, senior forward Obinna Oleka grabbed 17 rebounds and had 18 points, en route to his 8th double-double this season, further solidifying his role as a key player in this smaller Hurley squad.
“Obi Oleka, with the rebounding and what he’s doing around the rim, is very important for us,” Hurley said.
Among the surprises of Thursday’s game was the sighting of walk-on guard Austin Witherill. The sophomore from Gilbert had played nine minutes all season coming into the game against UCA, all in garbage time. Against the Bears, he played seven minutes, missing two shots but making a pair of free throws in the waning seconds.
Witherill’s minutes were especially surprising given how much ASU relied on its starters during the game. In the first 30 minutes of game time, freshman big Jethro Tshisumpa was the only non-starter to log more than five minutes.
The win for Arizona State (7-6) secures a winning record heading into conference play, which begins against Stanford on Dec. 30. The Bears (1-12) also begin play in the Southland conference with Sam Houston on Dec. 31.