ASU bench production is key to success for rest of NCAA Tournament run

Mar 16, 2023, 6:55 PM
Head coach Bobby Hurley and Jamiya Neal #5 of the Arizona State Sun Devils in the first half at UCL...
Head coach Bobby Hurley and Jamiya Neal #5 of the Arizona State Sun Devils in the first half at UCLA Pauley Pavilion on March 02, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Arizona State unleashed an offensive side of itself that has not been seen all season in Wednesday night’s First Four 98-73 win against Nevada — with 33 of those points coming off the bench.

ASU’s next stop is in Denver where it will take on No. 6 seed TCU on Friday in the Round of 64, but how it got off the bench and out of the First Four in blowout fashion speaks to how the Sun Devils can go deeper than any Hurley-led team has before.

ASU scored a season-high 98 points and broke a record for most points in a First Four game, and Hurley credited the historic performance to the players beyond his starting five.

“It was across the board, just everyone contributed,” Hurley said postgame. “Our defense was outstanding in the first half. Our bench was really good. Alonzo Gaffney, Jamiya Neal and Luther Muhammad, we had some foul issues on the perimeter dealing with multiple guys with two fouls, so needed those guys to perform that way, and they did.”

It was the second time this season ASU got 33 points off the bench, with the other one coming against then-No. 20 Michigan in an 87-62 blowout to win the Legends Classic on Nov. 17.

Simply put, when the Sun Devils bench scores 23 points or more, they are 6-1 and have scored at least 73 points in six of those seven games.

These point totals include wins over Michigan (87), Creighton (73), and then-No. 7 Arizona (89) that gave ASU added juice to its resume to go dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

“Yeah, I just feel like we’re a very deep team,” ASU guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. said after the game. “Everyone on the team can score. Everyone on the team can do a lot of things. When we’re clicking like that, we’re hard to stop. We already play good defense, so that’s what we hang our hats on, but when our offense is clicking like that, we’re a hard team to stop, and I think that’s why we got out to that big lead at the start.”

Neal dropped a career-high 16 points and went an impressive 6-for-7 from the field and a perfect 4-for-4 in the first half. When Neal scores at least 12 points, ASU is 3-0.

“He’s stepped up big time,” ASU guard Frankie Collins said. “He really brought it tonight. He’s been great these last few weeks.”

Neal has gotten more playing time since promising freshman point guard Austin Nunez went down with a concussion, topping 20 minutes or more in five of seven games that Nunez has been absent for.

It was also a standout game for Muhammad, who has been a Sun Devil for two years and finally got a taste of March Madness. Muhammad finished with 12 points and hit double-figures for the third time this season.

“Feels great,” Muhammad said. “We had a long season, up and down … we were blessed to get in. They put one foot in; we’re putting the other one in.”

ASU might also get some more bench help with the return of Nunez, who hasn’t played since Feb. 18 against Utah. Nunez was averaging the most points (4.5) and minutes (16.3) off the bench.

It’s been an up-and-down season offensively for ASU, with its defense being the team’s main identifier. If ASU wants to make a deep run in the Tournament, they will likely have to keep an offensive flow from top to bottom.


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