‘Lasting memory’: ASU wins by 25 in First Four

DAYTON, Ohio — Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley watched his team go through a 40-minute workout on Tuesday and saw a dialed-in group that took every drill and every shot seriously.

Hurley, who won two NCAA championships as Duke‘s point guard but has yet to find the same tournament success as a coach, felt his team would be ready for the stage Wednesday night in the First Four against Nevada. What he didn’t envision was Arizona State’s best collective half of the season, a 53-point knockout in the first half in which the Sun Devils hit more than two-thirds of their shot attempts.

One of the last teams into the NCAA tournament made one of the best first impressions, as Arizona State reached a season high for points in a 98-73 win over Nevada at UD Arena. The 11th-seeded Sun Devils advanced in the West region to face No. 6 seed TCU on Friday night in Denver.

“You never imagine that they could perform this well on offense,” Hurley said. “We scored the most points we scored all season tonight. And it was the quality of play, the whole team doing it. I can’t say I put in a guy in the game who didn’t contribute to it.”

ASU opened the game on a 15-6 run and led by as many as 29 in the first half. The team hit 8 of 14 attempts from 3-point range and shot 67.7% from the field in the half, and it had six players with multiple field goals, led by DJ Horne and Desmond Cambridge Jr. The Sun Devils set a First Four record for points and finished one point shy of their NCAA tournament record, set in 1980 against Loyola Marymount in the first round. They finished with 21 assists and only seven turnovers.

“To go out there and play a game like that, it’s definitely going to have a lasting memory,” said Horne, who hit Arizona State’s first 3-pointer of each half and finished with a game-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. “When we get off to starts like that, it feeds onto everybody on the team and just builds energy, and it showed tonight.”

Nevada actually shot well from distance, hitting 50% of its 3-point attempts, but it went just 2-for-12 on 2-pointers and had an uncharacteristic eight turnovers. Horne said the performance reminded him of a Feb. 25 contest at rival Arizona that Cambridge won on a 60-foot buzzer-beater. Sun Devils forward Warren Washington, who had nine points, saw a parallel to ASU’s 25-point dismantling of Michigan in November.

But given the stakes, ASU delivered arguably its most complete performance at the perfect time.

“The way we’re making every shot, making the right plays on offense, and we’re guarding at the same time,” Washington said. “That’s a recipe for wins. I knew it coming in. The last few games we had in the Pac-12 Conference prepared us for this. We’re battle-ready and battle-tested.”

Arizona State was the fourth and final Pac-12 team to reach the tournament, as the league didn’t meet preseason expectations. But ASU also logged three games against Arizona, the No. 2 seed in the South region, and two against UCLA, a No. 2 seed in the West.

The Sun Devils played five games from March 2 to March 10, including four against NCAA tournament teams (Arizona, UCLA and USC, twice). They left for Denver early Wednesday morning, but they will not play until the final game Friday night, which Hurley appreciated after a quicker turnaround when ASU won its First Four game in 2019 then lost to Buffalo.

“That’s all we need, we just need that one day,” Cambridge said. “We’re definitely going to maximize that time off and get ready for the next one.”

Cambridge and Washington transferred to ASU from Nevada, and both hurt their former team on Wednesday. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Cambridge’s 17 points marked the second most by a player against his former team in the NCAA tournament, behind Texas Southern’s Allen Lovett, who scored 28 points against UNC Asheville in 2000.

The 7-foot Washington facilitated on offense — Cambridge called him a point forward after four assists — and protected the basket. Nevada went just 5-for-14 on layup and dunk attempts.

“I’ve had plenty of practices going against them and competing with them,” Washington said of Nevada. “So competing against them was no different from practice or anything. I love those guys. They had a great year.”

ASU’s point total marked the most by a Pac-12 team in the NCAA tournament since Arizona had 100 against North Dakota State in the first round in 2017. The Sun Devils emptied their bench in the final seconds, allowing Hurley’s son, Bobby, and others to take the floor.

“It’s such a joy to watch him out there, and I’m thankful that the guys played this well, because those are the behind-the-scenes guys,” the Sun Devils coach said. “They’re just as valuable for what they bring in practice and supporting the team. So it was cool that they got the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament.”

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