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ASU men's basketball escapes with win versus Rhode Island thanks to timely defense

The Sun Devils' offense exploded for 94 points, but it was two key defensive plays that preserved their victory

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ASU senior guard Remy Martin (1) dunks the ball during a game against USC on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe.

No. 18 ASU men's basketball opened its season with a 94-88 win over Rhode Island in the first round of the Empire Classic despite allowing the Rams to shoot nearly 50% from the three-point line.

Up against another up-tempo, perimeter-centric team, the Sun Devils dominated for much of the first half, at one point leading by as many as 16 points. 

They built that advantage on the back of effective defensive ball pressure, forcing 11 first-half turnovers, and through aggressive penetration that generated 28 free throw attempts for the team through the first 20 minutes, more than they had in all but four full games last season. 

ASU senior guard Remy Martin shined in the first period with 16 points and three assists. 

Despite their disadvantage at the line and in the turnover margin, the Rams were able to slice the lead down to seven points by halftime with timely shotmaking, as they finished the period shooting 54.2% from the field and 55.6% from deep. 

Additionally, Rhode Island's efficient shooting came in spite of a poor first half from its star senior guard Fatts Russell, who averaged 18.8 points per game last season but totaled just two points and racked up four fouls in the first period. 

The tides began to change after halftime as Russell started to cook, picking ASU's defense apart out of the pick-and-roll both as a scorer and facilitator to help the Rams overcome the deficit completely less than six-and-a-half minutes into the second period.  

Russell posted 10 points and five assists in the period before fouling out with 5:52 remaining and the Rams leading by one point. 

With Russell off the floor, ASU's defense found its footing, holding Rhode Island to just five points for the remainder of the game. 

That effort culminated with two signature defensive plays. ASU freshman guard Josh Christopher took a charge with 51 seconds remaining, and senior guard Holland Woods scored a layup off of a steal a few possessions later to seal the deal. 

Before the game, ASU coach Bobby Hurley highlighted defensive effort and toughness as an area in which the team would have to improve. And although they struggled there for much of the night, that grit ultimately secured their victory.  

For the Sun Devils, Martin lived up to his preseason All-American selection with 26 points, six rebounds and five assists on 9-15 shooting.

Freshman forward Marcus Bagley also impressed with 16 points, 10 of which came on free throws. After knocking down two threes early, Bagley did the rest of his work at the line, attacking closeouts, getting to the rim and battling on the glass with three offensive rebounds. 

Although he shot just 3-10, Bagley's freshman counterpart Christopher showed flashes of talent, displaying a strong midrange pull-up game and the two-way ability that he advertised during the preseason.

The Sun Devils also received impactful contributions from Woods and junior forward Taeshon Cherry, both of whom had 11 points. Cherry's three triples bested any single-game mark he posted last season when he shot just 22.7% from deep. 

Reigning Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year and senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. scored just eight points on 2-8 shooting. 

For the Rams, redshirt junior forward Antwan Walker, a bench player last season,dominated inside with 21 points and seven rebounds. Senior guard Jeremy Sheppard notched 19 points on four made threes in his Rhode Island debut.

ASU will face No. 3 Villanova in the Empire Classic championship game Thursday at 7:30 p.m. MST. 

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