LAS VEGAS – Playing with the season on the line, it is only fitting that a dominant defensive performance kept the Arizona State campaign alive with a victory against Oregon State.
The Sun Devils (21-11) defeated the Beavers (11-21) 63-57 in the final matchup of Wednesday’s four-game slate to open up the first round of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament. After worry spread throughout T-Mobile Arena when ASU guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. arrived in a walking boot, he and the team’s performance demonstrated the grit they’ve shown throughout the year. In a quick turnaround, the sixth-seeded Devils now set their sights on game two when they take on No. 3 seed USC Thursday night in the quarterfinals.
“It’s March, so if you’re complaining about soreness and all that stuff, you really can’t because everybody’s sore,” said Warren Washington, a senior forward for the Sun Devils. “It’s about your mentality and it’s a quick turnaround, so we’re going to get off our feet and prepare and come out ready to play.”
Less than a week since the down-to-the-wire loss to USC in the regular season finale, coach Bobby Hurley’s squad gets an opportunity to settle the score and solidify its March Madness resume.
“It’s desperation time,” said Cambridge Jr., who finished with 13 points and a team-leading two steals against OSU. “It’s March and I don’t want to go home. I like it out here in Vegas and we are going to keep trying to get wins.”
Only the NCAA selection committee knows if an Arizona State victory against the Trojans will be enough to earn an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament and continue the Devils’ season past the weekend. Nevertheless, the victory on Wednesday night allows them the chance to prove to the country that they deserve their name to be drawn come Selection Sunday.
The Devils capitalized off the Beavers’ inexperience, outscoring them by a combined 34 points off second chance opportunities and turnovers. Led by Washington’s 15 points, Arizona State willed its way to victory after another shaky offensive performance. The team missed seven free throws and were 5-of-21 from beyond the arc.
“It was a gutsy win, this was kind of like our prior two matchups, a slower pace game, less possessions in the game,” Hurley said.
“I think the differences were our ability to generate points off their turnovers and usually when we win the paint we get a pretty good result. These tournaments, you survive and advance, no matter how you get it done, and just move on to the next round.”
The Sun Devils defense stifled the Beavers from opening tip-off to the final buzzer, holding them to a 34% clip from the field while owning the lead for over 31 minutes.
They also spoiled Oregon State’s freshman, Jordan Pope, record-breaking night. His three 3-pointers broke the team’s all-time freshman record, but the Beavers shot a combined 17% from beyond the arc with no other player converting from deep.
“They did a great job, they are a physical team. They made it hard for me,” Pope, who scored 12 points, said of the Sun Devils.
“They denied me, face-guarded me, top blocked me, and just made it hard for me off the ball and even with the ball. They did a hell of a job and kudos to them.”
With ASU freshman guard Austin Nunez out on concussion protocol, Hurley relied on an increased role from the bench. Freshman Duke Brennan played quality minutes defending the post as ASU’s fourth big man and a perfect 2 for 2 from the charity stripe by Jamiya Neal late in the game were significant factors propelling the Devils down the stretch.
“That’s my job,” Neal said. “To be there for my teammates coming off the bench and just trying to be a spark wherever I can, and in this instance, the team needed me to step up and make the free throws, so that’s what I did.”
Arizona State will again play the last game of Thursday’s slate when it faces USC. This time, however, the challenge will be stopping a team that has beaten the Devils twice with the opportunity of potentially playing into an at-large bid looming in the back of their minds.
According to Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, the Sun Devils are part of the first four teams out, while the Trojans are slotted in as a No. 10 seed. A Devils’ victory over USC would put the victor in a comfortable position heading into Selection Sunday.
“We got to deal with a team that is very good, that has two of the best players in the conference on their team and other guys that really defend hard and crash the backboard and they have good size,” Hurley said.
“So it’s a legit test like what you’re going to face if you want to play in the NCAA tournament. So we’re going to do the best we can.”