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ASU men’s basketball takes 1st place in Pac-12 with win over Oregon State

Arizona State Sun Devils guard Alonzo Verge Jr. (11) drives to the basket during the college basketball game between the Oregon State Beavers and the Arizona State Sun Devils on February 22, 2020 at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Down in the tunnel under Desert Financial Arena about an hour and a half after Arizona State beat Oregon State 74-73, there was loud shout of celebration as Oregon iced its game over Arizona in Tucson.

“First place!”

The Sun Devils took sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 on Saturday night. They extended their win streak to seven, the first time it has had a conference win streak that long since the 1980-81 season.

With the conference lead on the line, the Sun Devils had intense energy to start the game. They jumped into passing lanes and swiped the ball. They grabbed offensive rebounds. Of ASU’s first 18 points, nine came off turnovers and five were on second chances. ASU went up by as many as nine points early.

But at some point late in the first half, they crossed that fine line between aggression and recklessness. A defender away from the play would streak over in an effort to swipe a pass, but he’d miss the ball and his original man would be open for 3. Help defense didn’t rotate well when someone got out of position.

On offense, they overdribbled and got sloppy. ASU stopped getting to the offensive boards. They went into the half trailing 40-37.

“It was frustrating,” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “We had played about 17 minutes really well and had an eight-point lead and gave it away.”

In the second half, Romello White started strong by scoring ASU’s first six points.

His gravity continues to be an important part of ASU’s game. A conference leader in rebounds and shooting percentage, when the ball flows through him, good things tend to happen.

“I loved the way Romello started the second half, just to start getting the ball inside and getting some points in the paint was good,” Hurley said.

In one possession, Kimani Lawrence passed him the ball in the post. When the double team came, Lawrence was open and got the ball back for 3, which he made.

Lawrence has quietly improved his outside shooting. He finished Saturday 2-for-4 from behind the arc, one of which was a forced shot as time expired on the shot clock, and not because of him.

Over the last six games, he is 8-for-14 from 3. That’s an unbelievable improvement from the first 20 games in which he shot 15.8% from behind the arc.

Lawrence said that earlier this season, he would think about last year’s pre-conference numbers in which he shot a solid 36% from 3. Without last year’s stars Luguentz Dort and Zylan Cheatham, Lawrence put more pressure on himself.

“I changed my approach when we got days off I was just practicing. I’ve been in the gym a lot more than I had been,” Lawrence said. “I got my teammates pushing me, I got them instilling confidence in me. Between the work I’ve been putting in and them just like, ‘Kimani, shoot the ball,’ it’s a good feeling …  I don’t even think about it no more, soon as I catch it I can just let it go.”

That improvement statistically is realistically unsustainable, his mindset is better and the numbers are a confidence-builder that could help long-term. 

Lawrence finished with 14 points, a season-high, and had six boards, three of which were offensive. His plus-minus of +13 was tied with Mickey Mitchell for the best on the team.

Mitchell’s scoreless stat sheet does not reflect a strong performance. But that plus-minus shows how important he was. In the first half, his +10 was twice as much as the next-best Sun Devil.

Mitchell took on the main assignment of guarding Tres Tinkle and was often forced to switch onto Ethan Thompson. On some plays, he would rotate around more than just those two Beavers, and sometimes find his way onto a new man to box out when the shot went up.

“I don’t need to score to impact the game,” Mitchell said. “There’s a lot of players that can do that … the only stat that matters is at the end of the game if we win or lose.”

On the final play of the game, White got switched onto Tinkle, who had a game-high 25 points.

“I knew he was going to try to drive hard left so I was just trying to beat him to the spot and then make him make a tough pass and just really take some time off the clock,” White said. “I was just really trying to contain him.”

Mitchell came over to help, and Tinkle whipped a pass to the corner. The shot was offline and Mitchell came away with the rebound.

It was defense that won the game. ASU only made one basket in the final six minutes. Alonzo Verge was the only Sun Devil to score over the final 7:30 minutes.

“Tinkle had 15 at the half … (Thompson) had 13,” Hurley said. “If we allowed that to happen again, we probably wouldn’t be in this position.”

Like the USC game in which ASU only made one field goal in the final 11 minutes, the Sun Devils found a way to win. They’re going to need to keep doing that if they’re to retain pole position in the Pac-12.

“We have not peaked yet,” Hurley said. “That’s a good feeling this time of year. When you see that type of energy and effort, and how hard the guys played, and the shot making, you know how desperately they want to win. You love a team that you gotta rip your heart to out to beat them and that’s the kind of effort and what we’re bringing to the court every game.

Notes

— In the 1980-81 season, ASU won 11 conference games in a row. That team finished 16-2 in the conference but failed to win the Pac-10. This 2019-20 team is the first to win at least seven in-conference games in a row since.

Of course, the 2017-18 team won 12 straight out-of-conference games to start the season.

— Verge put up another strong performance, making ASU’s final seven points and going 7-for-13 from the field. He made four of his first five field goals.

— Three-point woes: ASU shot 7-for-25 behind the arc (28%) and 19-for-28 inside (68.9%). Verge was 1-for-5 from 3 and Rob Edwards was 1-for-7.

— White made seven of his eight free throws. ASU has won all four games in which he’s attempted at least eight.


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