LAS VEGAS -- As fans raced for the exit amid a smattering of boos in the game's final minute, Bobby Hurley unleashed a guttural yell and bumped around a boisterous Arizona State bench.
In the moment, the only thing differentiating Hurley from his players was his suit and tie and a couple extra decades of basketball experience. The latter yet again helped the Sun Devils to an impressive non-conference win, this time at the Thomas and Mack Center, where they fought back from a 13-point halftime deficit to earn a 66-56 road win over UNLV on Wednesday night.
The Sun Devils did so without junior forward Savon Goodman, one of their best players. He didn't make the trip, and is not expected to play in ASU's next three non-conference games due to what ASU has termed "personal reasons."
But just like they did last week at home against then-No. 18 Texas A&M or on the road at Creighton, where visitors almost never win, the Sun Devils scratched and clawed their way to a favorable outcome. They're now 7-3 on the season, with a Top-40 RPI and four wins against quality opponents under their belts. UNLV, which lost earlier this year 77-75 on a neutral floor to UCLA and beat Oregon 80-69 at home, is now 8-3.
“We always try to find a way to win,” ASU sophomore point guard Tra Holder said. “It would’ve been easy for us to say we were without one of our best players.”
Holder led the way for the Sun Devils, tallying 19 points with nine rebounds and two assists. He had ASU's first two baskets in each half of the game, and was the key player in the team's terrific second half, which is dominated to the tune of 41-17, including a 19-5 run at one point.
"They took us out of our offense, our normal flow, with how aggressive they are on their denials and things and we went to more of a spread, dribble penetration and Tra was having a really good game for us to do that," Hurley said.
The Rebels had no answer for how to defend ball screens featuring Holder at the top of the key, and the Sun Devils feasted off their point guard's ability to control the game as a result.
Others played a major role as well of course for the Sun Devils, who were down to eight scholarship players in light of Goodman's absence. Senior guard Gerry Blakes had a team-high 11 rebounds to go with 13 points, and senior forward Willie Atwood had two key 3-pointers in quick succession and tallied 14 points total.
"The guys believed and we got it to a reasonable margin early again, which was very helpful and put us right back in the game," Hurley said. "From there, I thought Tra was exceptional overall. Even in the first half when we were struggling, just wire-to-wire, very good effort from him. Gerry, his rebounding and clutch scoring was big. And Willie, he hit some clutch 3-pointers for us in the second half.
"Tra just keeps impressing me over and over. He's come really far in his career and his development. he's been making big plays for us and got us going at the start of the second half. Gerry, 11 defensive rebounds, for a guard that's ridiculous."
UNLV's length and extended defensive pressure was a big problem for the Sun Devils in the first half. They made just 1 of 13 3-pointers as a result, and when they penetrated and got inside had a tough time finishing against the Rebels length. Even a 10-0 offensive rebounding advantage wasn't able to make a dent, and UNLV led 37-25 at halftime, shooting 58.3 percent from the field.
"It wasn't a fun locker room to be in," Hurley said. "We didn't play defense the way we had in the past and the shooting percentages they had were way too high. We were 1 for 13 from 3, so that was a problem also. We got them into the penalty early and then we relied on the perimeter shots."
But ASU's energy went up another notch in the second half. Its players were taking charges, diving for loose balls, making the extra pass, including sophomore Kodi Justice, who had a one-of-a-kind over the shoulder pass from near the baseline all the way to the 3-point line for one of Atwood's big 3-pointers.
Coaching too, proved to be a difference in ASU's favor. Hurley changed his offense to use what the Rebels were doing defensively against them, and went to a zone defense in the second half that UNLV didn't shoot well over.
"We mixed it up a little bit," Hurley said. "We threw the zone in and gave them a different look. But it was also our guys stepping up and just keeping guys in front and closing them out to one shot."
The Sun Devils now host Houston Baptist Saturday, Stephen F. Austin next Tuesday and Cal State-Bakersfield the following Monday to close out the non-conference schedule with a great chance to 10-3 with a terrific strength of schedule and Top-40 RPI. That would set them up for a Pac-12 slate in which they would have a bit of breathing room as it relates to NCAA Tournament aspirations.
"We put together a high level, high quality out of conference," Hurley said. "So we've still have a few games left here but to win on the road is respected against good teams. UNLV has a very good chance to win their league this year. I felt really good about what I saw with Creighton in terms of them having a good year, and Texas A&M and N.C. State. So we've beaten some good, high quality opponents."