DAYTON, Ohio – Won and definitely not done.
Behind freshman sensation Luguentz Dort, Arizona State won its first NCAA Tournament game since 2009 and lived to dance another day. The Sun Devils defeated St. John’s 74-65 Wednesday to advance past the First Four and into the Round of 64 where they are slated to play No. 6 seed Buffalo.
“It was just great,” Dort said. “We knew that at the beginning of this year that we wanted to do something special. And getting some good wins like this, coming into the tournament getting some tough wins like this, it’s just great for us.”
This is officially uncharted territory for this Arizona State team in the Bobby Hurley era.
The tournament win is Hurley’s first as a head coach. In his four years with the Sun Devils, the team steadily improved its win totals and standing in the Pac-12 and has now made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1980-81 tourneys.
Arizona State played focused and shot efficiently out of the gates Wednesday night. A 16-3 first half run stretched a close 13-10 game into a 29-13 ASU lead and it led by as many as 18 points in the first half.
“I really love how we started the game and really took control of the game,” Hurley said. “And I thought our defense was very good. We mixed our defenses up some, and our zone was pretty effective in the first half.”
Arizona State employed a zone defense sporadically – a scheme that Syracuse used when it eliminated the Sun Devils last season – and it helped contain St. John’s lefty backcourt tandem of Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron on its way to a 38-25 first half lead.
“Our scouting, we knew they were a good team going one-on-one,” Dort said. “And I just felt like by going on the zone, it was kind of hard for them to get involved, like, to play and beat us one-on-one because we had to help.”
Dort, who many speculate will make himself available to the NBA after this season, finished the game with 21 points and spent much of the game defending the All-Big East First Teamer, Ponds, who finished the game with 25 points.
Remy Martin had a quiet game, ending the night with six points on 3-of-7 shooting in a limited 23 minutes. Martin injured his groin in the Pac-12 Tournament against Oregon, but started against St. John’s and is still in the Sun Devils’ rotation.
“It’s exciting to get this win and happy for our guys, happy for our seniors,” Hurley said. “And so it’s going to be exciting now heading to Tulsa.”
With the victory, the Sun Devils advance to the Round of 64 where they will face Hurley’s former team, the No. 6 seed Buffalo Bulls, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hurley coached Buffalo for two seasons, from 2013 to 2015, before joining Arizona State.
Buffalo, 31-3, enters the tournament hot, coming off both regular season and tournament championships in the Mid-American Conference and is coached by Hurley’s former associate coach, Nate Oats.
“And I haven’t really had time to think about how I’m going to feel on Friday,” Hurley said about the impending matchup with his former team. “But Nate and I speak, and we both agreed that we’re really good friends, and we both helped each other tremendously in our careers, but that’s probably not going to matter a whole lot on Friday.”
Last season, Buffalo sent shockwaves through brackets across the country when, as a No. 13 seed, it upset the No. 4 seed Arizona Wildcats in the first round of the tournament. Now, Arizona State looks to play the role of disruptor when it goes up against Hurley’s former squad in Tulsa.
Having advanced past the First Four in Dayton, where their season ended last year, the Sun Devils are hoping to build momentum and extend this run into Tulsa.
“I’m going to say we didn’t pack for just one game,” Zylan Cheatham said. “We’re really locked in. We’re really focused. And obviously this is a big step in the right direction. But we’re not content by any means. We’re hungry for more. We want to take this season as far as it can go.”
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