After watching his head coach implore the crowd to stand up and cheer with just over a minute left in Arizona State’s matchup against No.18 ranked Texas A&M, ASU junior guard Gerry Blakes knew it was time to let loose.
Dancing and playing to the crowd of 7,608 in attendance at Wells Fargo Arena with 30.5 seconds left in the game, Blakes -- after influencing his teammates to do the same -- started celebrating ASU's imminent win on the court as the crowd erupted into cheers.
And even after the final buzzer sounded and the ASU players did their victory lap around the arena, their energy radiated into their press conference, where ASU senior forward Willie Atwood and sophomore guards Kodi Justice and Tra Holder were all smiles.
“(It’s a) new era,” Atwood said. “I think the gym should be packed every game. I like playing here. I love this. It was loud today. I want the whole Tempe to come, the whole Mesa, whatever else there is around here. Pack out the gym!”
After getting a statement win by beating Creighton on the road 79-77 on Wednesday, ASU went back to Tempe on Saturday night and beat No. 18 Texas A&M 67-54.
ASU improved to 6-2, while the Aggies dropped to 7-2 on the season.
The Aggies beat then-No.10 ranked Gonzaga 62-61 on Nov. 26 for their own statement win in the beginning of the season, but were ice-cold on the night against the Sun Devils and scored a season-low 54 points.
ASU won its third-straight game, after beating both UC Santa Barbara at home and Creighton on the road by two points each.
“I’m excited for our players,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “You know the work they put in throughout the whole summer and into the fall with our practices and facing a lot of adversity early in the season, a lot of adversity has prepared these guys for this moment. It’s exciting to beat a ranked opponent here. Certainly it’s a win that sends a message that we’re getting close with what we’re trying to do.”
The last time ASU beat a ranked non-conference opponent at home was against No. 25 Marquette on Nov. 25, 2013. ASU won 79-77.
And unlike ASU’s past two games – both two-point wins going down to the final minute – the Sun Devils pulled away early and let the Aggies get no closer than eight points in the game’s final three minutes.
ASU’s largest lead of the game was 25 points at the 14:46 mark of the second half and the Aggies looked out of it until they went on a 11-0 run and started to slowly chip away at the Sun Devils. The Aggies’ zone defense proved troublesome for ASU as it went on a three-minute scoring drought, unable to get anything going on offense.
Cutting the Sun Devils’ lead down to eight points with 2:40 remaining in the second half, the Aggies looked like they could cut ASU’s lead even further, but Holder’s floater in the lane and then ASU junior forward Savon Goodman's ensuing basket closed the window of opportunity for Texas A&M.
“It’s been his calling card of what he’s doing, Tra, down the stretch of games closing out games,” Hurley said. “He’s a playmaker and he’s playing fearlessly and again he came through with shots.”
Holder finished the night with 13 points on 3 of 9 shooting from the field, 1 of 4 from behind the arc. But with Holder only 1 of 4 shooting in the first half, Justice was the one to step up and lead the offense.
After going down 0-5 in the game’s first couple of minutes, ASU fought back going on a 22-3 run, which was aided by a two crucial three-pointers by Justice and junior guard Andre Spight.
After Goodman scored four-straight points to give ASU a 14-8 lead with 12:20 left in the first half, Justice’s three-pointer ignited the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena.
Clapping his hands and yelling with excitement as he got back on defense, Justice celebrated with Hurley and his teammates as the Aggies were forced to call a timeout.
"After I hit a few shots, if I can get the crowd going with a little of my things I do here and there, that's all I'm trying to do really," Justice said. "After I hit the big shot, that'ts all I'm trying to do."
Spight’s three-pointer with 10:45 left in the first half capped off ASU’s 22-3 run before Aggies’ senior guard Alex Caruso scored Texas A&M’s first points in a three-minute span.
By halftime, ASU was up 33-19 on Texas A&M with the Aggies shooting 6 of 27 from the field – 22.2 percent. No Aggies player in the first half had more than five points.
The Aggies finished the game shooting 31.1 percent from the field on 19 of 61 shots. They were 6 of 26 from behind the arc and had 14 turnovers and 23 total fouls in the game. Four Aggies’ players had four fouls.
“It’s the best defense that I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here,” Hurley said regarding ASU’s defense. “The guys were really up to the challenge on that end of the floor.”
Aggies senior guard Danuel House was Texas A&M’s leading scorer coming into the game, averaging 16.3 points per game. But guarded by Blakes, he finished the night on 6 of 21 shooting from the field and scoring 17 points.
“Gerry’s toughness on the perimeter, you know guarding one of the better wing players that we’ll face this year in House, he’s a projected NBA guy,” Hurley said. “So for him to play that type of defense on him was pretty special for Gerry tonight.”
The Sun Devils were led by Atwood’s 15 points on 5 of 8 shooting from the field, 3 of 6 from three-point range. Atwood hit two of his three three-pointers right out of the gates in the second half to pull even further away from the Aggies and give ASU the 25-point cushion with under 15 minutes left in the second half. Atwood is now 6 of 8 from downtown in his last two games after going into the game against Creighton shooting 1 of 8 from behind the arc.
“I was rushing a lot of my shots at the beginning of the season, and then a lot of techinque and coach, we know we have a lot of great shooters on our team and I wasn't shooting with a lot of confidence at first and now I'm just letting it ride," Atwood said.