Sun Devils coast to win over Houston Baptist

Arizona State improved to 8-3 with a win over Houston Baptist Saturday that brings it to within two games of the close of its non-conference schedule.

Not even the walk-ons are above reproach from Bobby Hurley. 

Four of Arizona State's starters checked back into the lineup with 50 seconds left in a blowout 98-79 win over Houston Baptist at Wells Fargo Arena Saturday, replacing the unfamiliar, rarely-used players that had entered the game just a minute and a half earlier. 

No, the game hadn't suddenly tightened up. ASU's first-year coach was just unhappy with how his walk-ons were playing with a 25 point lead and two minutes of clock to salt away.

"Any minutes that a player is on the floor are important minutes, no matter what the scoreboard is," Hurley said. "I didn't like what was going on there with the substitutions that I made and we needed to leave the court on the right terms."

The outcome was never in doubt, probably not even before the game, with a Southland Conference opponent overmatched and facing an near-certain lopsided loss that developed, as expected. This wasn't an opponent the caliber of almost any of ASU's previous 10 non-conference games, one or two exceptions aside. 

So, after a sluggish start perhaps due in part to a 12:30 p.m. tip in front of a spare crowd of 4,573 that included very few students due to winter break, ASU was up 13 at halftime and as many as 31 points in the second half before coasting the rest of the way. The Sun Devils checked the box on avoiding a bad non-conference loss yet again, improving to 8-3 on the season, while Houston Baptist dropped to 4-7.

"Being a former player, you understand you're playing in some emotional games with great crowds and a lot on the line, and to drop into a game like this a couple days [after that] is not easy,'' Hurley said. "We tried to instill some energy in the guys and the crowd wasn't great early. Hopefully that will continue to get better.

"I was okay with our defense until the last eight minutes or so and I think sometimes when the game has a tendency to be that lopsided to revert to some selfishness and we weren't staying in the lane with rebounds, we gave them too many offensive rebounds."

Sophomore Kodi Justice came off the bench to score a game-high 20 points including 6 of 8 on 3-point attempts. At one point in the second half, Houston Baptist stubbornly refused to switch defenses even as Justice made his third straight 3-pointer from the same spot on the court. 

"My teammates just found me and I kind of got in a rhythm right there," Justice said. "They were in a zone and just kept packing it in so I was going to let it go, and then I hit a few and I got rolling so I was going to just keep letting it go."

Perhaps Houston Baptist needed to see the Sun Devils prove it wasn't a fluke. After all, ASU entered the game last in the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting at 28.6 percent. In this game though, the Sun Devils were up big and playing loose, and perhaps as a result made 12 of 26 3-pointers in the game (46.2 percent), with sophomore guard Tra Holder (2 of 4) and senior guard Gerry Blakes (3 of 5) also providing a boost. 

In all, ASU saw five players finish in double figures in scoring, with Holder (17 points), and senior center Eric Jacobsen (16) just behind Justice. With junior Savon Goodman missing his second straight game, senior forward Willie Atwood was again impressive with 13 points and 10 rebounds. The Sun Devils just missed scoring 100 points, which would have been the first time reaching the mark since December of 2009. 

"We were finding each other, we were getting open shots," Justice said. "We had like 13 assists in the first half. I think it was one of our highs this year. We were sharing the ball. We had 23 for the game. We were just playing as a team. When we get the ball moving, we find guys open, people knock good shots, we have good shooters on the team."

The Sun Devils really haven't show that to be the case yet, at least not statistically, but even without it they've managed to claw their way to a Top-30 RPI and Top-20 strength of schedule at the time of Saturday's win. It's put them in great shape to enter Pac-12 play with some wiggle room as it relates to NCAA Tournament post-season aspirations. But first they play Stephen F. Austin Tuesday at home, followed by Cal State-Bakersfield at Wells Fargo Arena a week from Monday. 


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