As the names of ASU’s starters were announced in the stadium for the team's matchup against the UCLA Bruins (10-9, 3-3), the players were met with the traditional greeting for visiting players – boos and jeers rained down from the rafters and chants of “who is that” emanated from the Bruin faithful.
Yet, as the last syllable of sophomore guard Remy Martin’s name left the announcer's lips, the boos were almost immediately drowned out by an uproar of cheers from one specific section in the stadium. Unsurprisingly, Martin, a Chatsworth, Calif., native, had more than a handful of friends and family in attendance for the game. And boy, what a game they saw.
Fifteen points, a career-high 11 assists and possibly the greatest dunk by any Sun Devil under 6 feet in recent memory is the extremely shortened recap of a phenomenal performance for Martin, who led ASU men's basketball (14-5, 5-2) to an 84-73 win in Pauley Pavilion.
“He can score the ball, and like you guys saw tonight, he can pass the ball. So when he’s impacting the game like that, he’s a tough guy to deal with,” redshirt senior forward Zylan Cheatham said. “He’s growing into his role, he’s maturing, and the game is slowing down for him. He’s learning time and score situations, and he’s taking the game one possession at a time."
Despite only scoring two first-half points, Martin made sure his impact was felt from the jump as he dished out an astonishing eight assists in the game’s first 20 minutes.
UCLA opened the game in a soft full court press, which dropped off into a 2-3 zone. The tactic was meant to negate the Sun Devils' ability to get to the rim, but Martin was able to dissect the defense with almost tactical precision. Whether it was no-look passes thrown from a variety of different angles, or nifty little drop-offs from inside the paint, Martin often buoyed a struggling ASU offense as he found his teammates for easy buckets time and time again.
It was not until the second half that Martin truly began looking for his own shot, and it quickly paid dividends as the sophomore scored seven of the Sun Devils first 14 points of the period. Coinciding with Martin's standout performance, the ASU offense was able to find its rhythm and once again rode a big second-half run to its third straight victory.
“As a point guard you have to get your teammates involved,” coach Bobby Hurley said. “Eight assists at halftime is great. But then he found more scoring opportunities in the second half, and he got this really good balance.”
Martin was not the only Sun Devil to set a career high Thursday night, as Cheatham collected 20 rebounds in the win. Cheatham became the first Sun Devil to accomplish the feat since Michael Batiste in 1997, and pulls within one of the conference’s leader, USC forward Nick Rakocevic, in total rebounds. Despite only tallying nine points, Cheatham was an integral force in the victory as he often found himself leading the fast break or facilitating out of the high post.
“20 rebounds, you just don’t see that too often,” Hurley said. “It shows how dynamic and athletic he is, and how hungry he is.”
For the second straight contest, ASU has relied on a substantial second-half run to take control of the game. Thursday’s run began at the 17:04 mark, with the Sun Devils trailing by two after a three-point shot from UCLA guard Prince Ali. From there, it was all ASU, as five quick points from Martin sparked a 18-5 run that would take the Sun Devils from down 54-52 to up 70-59 in a matter of a five or so minutes.
Much of that has to do with the coaching of Hurley, whose impassioned halftime speech struck a chord inside many of ASU’s key players.
“(We defended) a lot better in the second half, and a lot that had to do with the speech Hurley gave us,” Cheatham said. “I won’t quote him on that because it was pretty vulgar, but he has expectations for us and when we don’t meet them, he holds us accountable. Hurley is just the type of guy you want to do more for.”
With the win Thursday, Hurley has a chance to nab his first conference sweep as a coach at ASU with a victory over USC this Saturday. It is an accomplishment that has long evaded Hurley, and his frustrations surrounding it are palpable.
“I’ve had trouble accomplishing a road sweep, and I still haven’t done that so that’s still on the table,” Hurley said. “In past years we weren’t getting the first one on the road, but now we’ve seemed able to get the first game in both our sets, so now we just have to rest up and prepare for a team that’s playing very well.”
With Saturday’s contest against the Trojans, ASU has the chance to leave the City of Angels as winners of four straight games, and to cement its status as one of the few favorites to nab the Pac-12 crown. With a matchup against the rival Arizona Wildcats looming, the time has come for the Sun Devils to assert themselves as legit conference contenders in one of the strangest years in Pac-12 history.
“These two games are both big as teams start to figure out where their seasons are going,” Hurley said. “So this was kind of a pivotal game for us.”
ASU will take on USC in Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 26 at 6:00 p.m. MST.