LAS VEGAS – Thirteen seconds in, Desmond Cambridge Jr. stepped into a jump shot and swished the first bucket of the game to put the Arizona State men’s basketball team ahead. It was a lead the Sun Devils would never relinquish.
In the team’s most complete performance of the year, ASU (22-11) held the lead for more than 39 minutes en route to a 77-72 victory over USC (22-10) Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena.
With the victory, the No. 6 seed Sun Devils set up a battle for supremacy in the state of Arizona against the No. 2 Wildcats in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament. At the same time, they may have played themselves into an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.
“Just really pleased with our performance tonight,” coach Bobby Hurley said. “The way we started, how efficient we were on offense, guys really stepped up in a big game and got us off to a great start.”
The Sun Devils played their best game at the most important time of the season. They limited the two-headed monster and First Team All-Pac-12 Trojans, Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson, to a combined 7 of 24 on the floor while holding USC to 25 points in the first half.
An ASU career high 27 points by Cambridge ignited a spark in the team’s offense even more electric than Sparky with his pitchfork. Even though Warren Washington said, “it was nothing new,” for the Nevada transfer and the Devils’ leading scorer, Cambridge’s ability to make big plays in big moments all year long has been the difference maker in ASU’s season.
“I have confidence in myself and when your teammates also have that confidence in you, you feel like nothing can stop you,” Cambridge said.
The offensive effort against one of the best defensive teams in the conference was the biggest factor in Arizona State’s victory. The Trojans are ranked in the top 10 in the country in opponent field goal percentage and have two All Pac-12 defensive players in Kobe Johnson and Joshua Morgan. Still, the Sun Devils made 14 from behind the arc along with 21 second-chance points and had a six rebound advantage on the offensive glass.
Another standout night from the bench also played a pivotal role in the Devils’ success. With Austin Nunez again out because of concussion protocols, Hurley relied on Jamiya Neal and Alonzo Gaffney to play important minutes down the stretch. The duo delivered, combining for 15 points, three steals and six rebounds.
“Just trying to be there for my teammates as many ways as I can,” Neal said. “Whether it’s points, rebounds or defense, I am just happy to be there for my teammates.”
The Sun Devils are now set to face their in-state rival and eighth-ranked Arizona Friday night for the chance to play in the Pac-12 title game Saturday.
What happened the last time they played the Wildcats? Well a Hail Mary half-court shot by Cambridge Jr. at the buzzer brought the McKale Center to complete silence and gave the Devils their signature win of the season.
“It felt like an Elite 8 type of game, the scoring, the shot making. It was an early glimpse into March Madness and what that’s all about,” Hurley said.
“So there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to do in order to have some success (Friday night). But it’s what you live for. To be in the semifinals of a tournament like this with the teams that are still left, we feel blessed and just can’t wait for the opportunity.”
For a roster whose starting lineup includes a majority of new transfers, and for players who had little time to compete together before the season, Bobby Hurley and Co. have exceeded expectations as they get ready for day three of the Pac-12 tournament. The team has put itself in a position to compete for ASU’s first conference championship and is now slotted as a “last four in” team in the NCAA tournament, according to Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology.
“I feel like it has come full circle,” Washington said.
“Having a lot of new guys on this team, we knew it was going to be a long year and have a lot of things to work on. It’s going to show against Arizona how much of a full circle we have come. Four of the five starters weren’t here last year and we’re out here doing big things. It’s a blessing.”
The Sun Devils will have the opportunity to bolster their tournament resume past an opening night game in Dayton with a victory against the Wildcats. Either way, the Sun Devils season is alive and well and they are prepared to prove themselves to the country.
“We are taking things day by day and trying to win every game,” Gaffney said. “Our season isn’t over yet so survive and advance baby.”