DAYTON, Ohio – Any doubts about whether or not the Arizona State Sun Devils were NCAA Tournament eligible were put to rest early.
The Sun Devils (23-12) defeated Mountain West representative Nevada 98-73 in a First Four contest at the University of Dayton Arena on Wednesday night. Now it’s on to Denver where the Sun Devils will face TCU at the Ball Center on Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET.
It will be difficult for the Sun Devils to top their most recent performance, one in which they shot 63.6% (35-for-55) from the field, the best field goal percentage in 133 NCAA tournament games played. This bettered the previous mark of 63.3% by LaSalle (31-for-49) vs. Boise State on March 20, 2013.
“It was an absolute performance for us,” said ASU head coach Bobby Hurley. “You want to play like this this time of year. That’s what it’s all about. I really believe that our schedule and the games that we’re involved in, especially at the end of the season, gives you the confidence to play these types of games.” Let’s prepare. And it was across the board, just everybody contributed. Our defense was great in the first half.”
The players admitted they are perhaps a little humiliated to be back in a play-in game, but they are pushing it and look forward to their shot against one of the Big 12’s best.
Desmond Cambridge Jr. said, “Personally I definitely had a chip on my shoulder, but at the end of the day, it’s just the mindset.” “I try to find things to keep myself motivated. But I’m very happy to be here, so I’m not going to say that I’m not grateful for this opportunity. But yes, I feel kind of insulted.” Felt like we’re in this first four. But at the end of the day, I’m grateful, and we came and did what we should have done, so next game.
DJ Horn, who led all scorers with 20 points, agreed.
He said, “I felt like it was a little disrespectful, but happy to be here, happy for my opportunity, and happy we won the game. Ready for the next one.”
Nevada’s only lead was 3–0. ASU led after 20 minutes 53–26, with the 53 points being the most points scored in a half by ASU this season. The previous best was 50 in the second half against San Diego while the previous high was 46 in the first half which the Sun Devils did twice.
The Sun Devils also marked the second most points scored in a half in school history with 53 points in a tournament game behind the 54 points scored in a 97–90 loss against Arkansas in 1991.
The largest ASU lead was 30 points in the opening seconds of the second half at 56–26. Nevada could get no closer than 19 points.
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Neil is a huge factor
Jamia Neal has become a key factor, getting more playing time with True freshman Austin Nunez, who has been out with an injury since February 18. Nunez was one of the team’s best shooters and on-ball defenders.
The sophomore guard has scored 61 points along with 18 rebounds, 12 assists, three blocks and eight steals over the past seven games.
He had a season-high 16 against the Wolf Pack, 10 of which came in the first half. He also had four rebounds, three steals and two assists.
Hurley said Nunez has been fully involved in practice the past two days. He was dressed and warmed up with the team for the first time since his injury. Hurley said he hoped Nunez could play on Friday.
Duo had extra inspiration
The biggest story of the night was the presence of two former Nevada players in ASU’s starting lineup in Cambridge Jr. and Warren Washington, both of whom came to Tempe over the summer. Cambridge has been ASU’s leading scorer, adept at making clutch shots, while Washington is the team’s leading rebounder.
Cambridge finished with 17 points and six assists while Washington managed nine points, five rebounds, four assists and one block.
Hurley wins coaching matchup
The coaching matchup was an intriguing one with two winning national championships as players, Hurley winning two at Duke and Steve Alford of Nevada winning one at Indiana in 1987.
The two had previously coached against each other when Alford was at UCLA from 2013 to 2018. He is finishing his fourth year at Nevada.
“I know he’s a competitor and he’s a winner and he’s been a winner his whole life, so you know you’re going to get your best shot,” Hurley said of Alford. “Their team is going to be ready and prepared. I don’t think it was a case of them not playing well, I think it was us playing exceptionally well. I thought that was the story, especially early in the game.”
The Sun Devils have played seven straight road games dating back to their last three games of the regular season. Then it was three in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. Counting from that last game in Las Vegas on Friday against the Wolf Pack and the following Friday against TCU, that would make it five in nine days.
Players say that they are not concerned with this as getting a chance to play on the big stage is enough for them to move forward.
“No, not really worried,” Horn said. “Especially when you’re on this stage, I think you have to be up for every game, and if you’re not, what kind of basketball player are you? But we’re going to do a good job of relaxing.” and everything and then get on the flight so we’ll be ready to play the next game.”
Hurley said the match starting at 7:05 p.m. helps. When his team played for the last time in the First Four it had to go from Dayton to Tulsa, Oklahoma and had an afternoon game which it lost in a lopsided fashion. So he is grateful for the few extra hours.
“I’m grateful that the NCAA allows the game to happen late on a Friday night because the last time we were here and won, I believe, was an afternoon game, and there really wasn’t enough time for us to get physical.” To bounce back organically,” he said. “Every hour counts, and that will be the focus of the next 36 hours.”
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what is next
Arizona State faces No. 6 seed TCU (21-12, 9-9 in the Big 12) on Friday at the Ball Center in Denver. TCU was ranked fifth in the Big 12 behind Kansas, Texas, Kansas State and Baylor. The Horned Frogs are ranked 22nd nationally.
TCU has already played with two Pac-12 teams, both early in the season. It defeated Cal 59–48 on November 25 in a neutral site tournament and Utah 75–71 on December 21 in Salt Lake City.
Hurley said of his next opponent, “I have a lot of respect for him and the season he’s had.” “The league was rated one of the best in the country this year. I talked about us being battle tested. Well, so were they. I think they play elite competition.”
This article originally appeared on The Arizona Republic: Arizona State advanced to face TCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.