(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
“Great to be home.”
Those were senior forward Willie Atwood’s first words following Arizona State’s 86-68 victory over the Oregon State Beavers.
Home was great to the Sun Devils, who had lost six of their first seven conference games and were looking to avoid losing their fourth straight game. The three losses leading up to the 18-point victory has all been losses of five or less points and all ended with a Sun Devil comeback falling short.
This time, the Sun Devils made a few changes to try and alter their first half woes.
“I just thought in practice to say, ‘Hey, let’s try and play the first 20 minutes of practice at the highest level,’” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “I don’t know how much effect that would have or not have but that’s what we talked about.”
The players understood the idea, and it ended up playing a huge factor in the big win.
“Coach wanted to do something different,” Atwood said. ”He always says that we start out practice slow, and it gradually gets better and we forget how slow practice started off, and most of our games went like that before. And he said ‘How about we start out practice with great energy, from top to bottom and translate it to the game,’ and that’s what we did.”
This turned out to be a crucial factor behind the victory, the Sun Devils jumped out to an early 15-5 lead five minutes into the game, and had a lead as large as 19 in the first half. Hurley was a bit more modest in the approach.
“It was just a thought,” Hurley said.
That thought carried much of the momentum throughout the game, the Sun Devils never let down and Oregon State never stood a chance.
“We felt like we played well enough to put ourselves in a position that in this basketball game our opponent shouldn’t have had a sniff at getting back into the game,” Hurley said.
Other than the 11 three-pointers made by ASU to keep Oregon State out of contention from the get-go, the Beavers’ star point guard, Gary Payton II, had his worst game of the entire season.
“Tra (Holder) did a phenomenal job guarding him (Payton II),” senior guard Gerry Blakes said. “We knew Gary Payton was a do-it-all guard for them, so if we can stop him that would be big for us.”
Payton II, who averages 17 points, eight rebounds, and five assists per game, finished with two points on 1-of-7 shooting to go along with three rebounds and seven assists. While Blakes has typically been the perimeter stopper on the defensive end, Hurley wanted to give Holder the assignment.
“We’ve given Gerry a lot of tough assignments and I think that we need to focus on guarding the guy at our position, and we’re going to try and do that more throughout the rest of the year,” Hurley said.
Holder had his best defensive performance of the season to go along with his eight points and eight assists on the offensive end.
“I’m excited for Tra. That’s a big step for him,” Hurley said. “Tra was happy that he got the call on him. He said that to me after shootaround and he accepted the challenge and that’s where his focus was. He knew he had a responsibility to guard arguably the best player in the league right now.”
While an elite player had an off night, the Sun Devils across the board were having a great night of their own. Five Sun Devils were in double-figure scoring, and two had eight points. The two with eight were Holder and fellow sophomore guard Kodi Justice, who have been ASU’s most consistent forms of offense since conference play began.
“To have five guys in double (figures) and two guys with eight, have 24 assists on the 32 field goals were great numbers for us on offense, and the way we shot the three,” Hurley said.
One of the outstanding offensive performers was Blakes, who has struggled shooting the ball in conference play. He had made only four three-pointers in the seven games before tonight, but he sank two from downtown, including one from near the time line to beat the shot clock.
“It felt great to help my team in those moments,” Blakes said, “All in all, we had a great team win and a lot of guys stepped up.”
Blakes finished with 16 points, his highest total of Pac-12 play.
Three-point shooting is what will get all the attention, but the 24 assists are what stand out on the stat sheet considering that is how many rebounds Oregon State had as a team. Likely due to the irrelevance that Payton II showed on the glass, the Sun Devils took full advantage. ASU’s starting guard tandem of Blakes and Holder had 11 rebounds combined.
“That’s probably one of the best things that Gary (Payton II) does is rebound from that position,” Hurley said. ”We talked about it, those guys (the guards) understood it, they saw it on the film and they did a good job of keeping him off the board.”
Payton II also missed his only two attempts from the free throw line, but a separate two misses from the free throw line are what brought the roof off of Wells fargo Arena. When OSU freshman forward Stephen Thompson Jr. stepped to the line with 13:47 remaining in the game, the Sun Devil student section’s Curtain of Distraction came out for its typical second half attempt at making the opposing team miss. Little did Thompson know it was anything but their typical performance.
Eighteen-time Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps, and soon-to-be assistant swim coach at ASU, stepped out of the curtain and ripped off his clothes, only to be wearing a speedo, a bowtie, and gold medals on his neck.
“Did you see his medals? That almost disturbed me,” Blakes said.
Thompson missed both free throws, and the following possession concluded in a dunk for ASU junior forward Savon Goodman to build their lead to 25.
“That’s the first time that I’ve seen the Curtain of Distraction this year. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see that,” Hurley said. “(Phelps) made a major contribution to the game tonight, it was one of the highlights of the night for sure.”
The night was filled with plenty of highlights for the Sun Devils, but the biggest one is getting another tally in the win column.
“We feel and we believe that we’re a better team than our record reflects,” Hurley said. “There’s nothing to change that at this point but these guys answered a bell and we’ve been competitive in every game that we’ve played in in the conference. It is demoralizing to lose close games and not be able to break through but it’s nice to have a confidence building performance like we had tonight on offense.”