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ASU men’s basketball clinches Pac-12 first-round bye with win over WSU

Arizona State guard Remy Martin, right, celebrates during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game as Washington State guard Jervae Robinson looks on Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. – By the time Arizona State men’s basketball took the floor against Washington State for the final game of the regular season, USC had already beaten UCLA and Utah had beaten Colorado.

The Sun Devils’ fate was officially in their own hands. A win would grant them a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.

ASU took a double-digit lead by halftime and overcame a late WSU run to win 83-74. Alonzo Verge scored 13 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and Remy Martin bounced back from an off night Thursday with 18 points and six assists.

“I’m really proud of our grit,” said head coach Bobby Hurley. “All the things that we’ve been talking about probably since after we lost to Washington State (on Jan. 29) … It’s kind of come full circle back to Washington State, it’s funny how things work.”

ASU’s path to earn that bye has similar themes to the college careers of two of the three seniors the Sun Devils honored in their final home game.

Rob Edwards and Mickey Mitchell both underwent back surgeries during their ASU careers. Their recovery was strenuous, but they were persistent and resilient in their push to not just return, but be important players to ASU’s success.

Those two seniors and Grant Fogerty were celebrated in a pregame ceremony for ASU’s final home game of the season.

“The message was: Try and be courageous like they’ve been,” Hurley said. “They’ve been about battling through adversity … tremendous work ethic, great habits, winning habits… Let’s try and do that as a team today and honor them out on the floor by performing the way they deserve to have the entire team perform.”

While ASU’s rough periods throughout the season were often self-inflicted – whether inconsistent play or playing down to the level of opponents that were perceived as weaker – the team’s ability to overcome losing streaks and in-game runs by opponents shows some of that resiliency from Edwards and Mitchell.

“Those guys are role models to me,” Verge said. “I look at those guys when I’m struggling and when I’m down because Rob kind of had an up-and-down season but he never gave up. And Mickey went through a lot of adversity being hurt and things like that and that just shows you how you can come back from adversity and that shows how strong they are as individuals.”

The Sun Devils looked all but out of NCAA Tournament bubble at the beginning of February. After a practice following a win in the first game that month, point guard Remy Martin said to reporters, “It’s either you win or you lose and I’m not a loser.”

ASU then rattled off seven straight wins.

A month later, ASU looks likely to make March Madness. A first-round bye gives the Sun Devils a chance to compete for the conference title.

“It’s big. It’s definitely a help,” Martin said Saturday. “We didn’t have a bye my first year and then second year, having that bye kind of had a difference. Playing three games instead of four games is a lot easier.”

The Sun Devils started slow Saturday against Washington State, falling behind 12-4 quickly. Romello White and Jalen Graham both picked up two fouls early in the first half while the Cougars led, forcing ASU to go smaller and play without either big for the rest of the half.

Taeshon Cherry played excellent during that stretch, recording two blocks and three steals in the first half alone. He finished with four steals, a career-high.

The team also stopped fouling in that first half. Graham’s second foul, committed a little more than eight minutes into the first half, was the eighth team foul of the game. ASU only committed three over the next 11:47.

Washington State’s CJ Elleby, who hit the game-winner the first time the teams matchup up this season, was completely stymied.

He hit just one of 10 shots in the first half and finished the game with six points on 2-of-19 shooting and missed all 10 3-pointers.

Several Sun Devils took their turn on him: Edwards and Mitchell, Cherry, Khalid Thomas, Allonzo Verge. Each stepped up against one of the best players in the Pac-12.

“Last game we played them, he waved at our bus when they beat us,” said Edwards, who matched up on Elleby for much of the second half. 

Hurley said that to stop Elleby, defenders had to guard him tight: “If you let him get his rhythm dribbles and you let him get his step-backs and you’re not in his space, disrupting him, then he’s gonna comfortably make shots.” 

Edwards: “We stayed close to him and made other guys beat us.” 

The Cougar who took control was Isaac Bonton. Constantly attacking the rim, he finished with 17 points – however, it took him 25 field goal attempts to do so. He shot just 20% from the field and made only one of nine 3-pointers.

But like so many other games this season, ASU couldn’t hold onto a lead. Washington State went on a 10-0 run to cut the deficit to seven, and then clawed its way to a one-point lead. ASU’s transition defense was lacking. The Cougars finished the game with 50 rebounds to ASU’s 44, and on one possession Washington State grabbed four offensive rebounds.

“We always find a way to make it interesting, for some reason,” Verge said light-heartedly as he sat down for the postgame press conference.

That they do. After winning seven in a row, ASU loses three straight. With a 17-point lead in the second half and a tournament by on the line, the Cougars come back to tie.

But more often than not, the Sun Devils surge ahead. Tied with 2:37 to go, Martin made a jumper. Edwards hit a corner 3 to go up five. Martin hit Romello White down low for a dunk, and ASU managed the clock and the free throw line while stopping WSU from making another basket.

ASU has won 20 games in each of Martin’s seasons on the team.

“Once you hit that 20 you kind of feel good about yourself,” Martin said. “To win 20 games you gotta be a pretty good program.”

Arizona State will be the third seed if No. 13 Oregon (23-7, 12-5 Pac-12) beats Stanford (20-10, 9-8 Pac-12) and fourth seed if Stanford beats Oregon.

That game takes place Sunday at 9 p.m. and will be aired on Fox Sports 1.

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