In a season defined by the play of its exceptional guards, the ASU men's basketball team flipped the script Thursday night with a punishing, relentless interior attack that ultimately delivered the team an 83-72 victory over UCLA to advance to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals.
Redshirt sophomore forward Romello White led the way for the Sun Devils with a game-high 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting, joining four other Sun Devils who scored in the double-digits.
“I just feel like we finally clicked, we finally got it,” sophomore guard Remy Martin said. “As you see in the box score, everybody contributed, and my job is just to get them the ball and let them do what they do. That’s ASU basketball.”
ASU’s amped-up physicality was clear from the jump, as the Sun Devils out-rebounded UCLA 23 to 18 in the first half while holding the Bruins to a dismal 35.5 percent shooting percentage from the field. ASU’s ability to keep UCLA out of the paint was key throughout Thursday’s contest, as the Bruins finished the game with only eight baskets inside the paint, compared to 17 for the Sun Devils.
“We had a plan coming into the game, and we just carried it out. We were going to own the boards, defend well, pick people up,” sophomore forward Kimani Lawrence said. “We have two All-Pac-12 defenders on our team, so we’re all just trying to do our part.”
The Bruins' identity is built around their length and tenacity, especially down low with 7-foot-1 freshman and former five-star prospect Moses Brown. Yet it was White who played like the future NBA draft pick Thursday night with a dominant effort on both ends of the floor.
White’s offensive ability has never been in question, and he showed why Thursday going 8-for-10 from the field, but his defensive abilities have long been a point of contention. Despite leading all scorers, White’s defensive performance debatably outshined his offensive Thursday night as he held Brown without a field goal while also grabbing seven rebounds.
“My coaches just told me to go right at them every time,” White said. “My teammates kept looking for me, and once I got a couple buckets, they didn’t stop looking for me.”
A massive factor in ASU’s win was its 14-0 run to end the first half. After Bruins sophomore Jaylen Hands made three-pointer to cut the Sun Devil lead to two, ASU stormed back with four straight baskets of its own to extend its lead to 16 heading into the break.
Lawrence ignited the run with a mid-range jumper, then sent the Sun Devils into a frenzy with a flailing three-point shot to beat the halftime buzzer.
“I just kind of picked it up and threw it up,” Lawrence said on his buzzer-beating three. “I didn’t even really look at the rim really. I didn’t know if it was going to go in, but it felt good, and when I was looking and it looked like it started to go in, I put my three (fingers) up. It was crazy.”
An important contributor in ASU’s 14-0 run to finish the half was freshman guard Luguentz Dort, who knocked in his first two three-pointers of the game as part of the stretch. Despite starting the game 0-5, Dort finished with a respectable 13 points to go along with his three rebounds and two steals. Much of his energy was spent slowing down Hands, forcing the sophomore into 3-for-9 shooting in the first half.
“Sometimes you just have to worry about stopping your man on the other team, so yeah it does take away a little bit (from my offensive game),” Dort said. “It was on my mind to start the game, so I was just trying to guard him 94 feet and force him into tough shots.”
Up next for ASU is a semifinal matchup against the Oregon Ducks, with a chance to play in the Pac-12 Championships on the line. Winners of six of their last seven games, the Sun Devils are playing their best basketball when it matters most.
“This is all very exciting, but it’s not satisfying,” Martin said. “We came here to win. We’re happy right now, but we’re going to absorb this, get some rest, and be ready to play tomorrow.”
ASU takes on the Ducks in Las Vegas on Friday, March 15 at 8:30 p.m. MST.