Arizona State's penultimate non-conference foe Stephen F. Austin didn't have the name recognition of a half dozen of the Sun Devils' previous opponents, namely Kentucky, Marquette, Texas A&M, Creighton, UNLV or N.C. State. But it had something more important: a good basketball team.
The Lumberjacks return four starters from a team that went 29-5 last season, won a league championship, and earned a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost a close game to No. 5 seed Utah 57-50.
With ASU's players all packed and set to disperse to their respective homes for a holiday break immediately after the game, Stephen F. Austin was exactly the type of opponent that could have proved problematic.
And it was. But the Sun Devils, too, played hard throughout and managed to hold off a relentless Stephen F. Austin for a 80-73 win in front of 4,373 in a matinee performance at Wells Fargo Arena. ASU improved to 9-3 and will play Cal State-Bakersfield Monday in its final non-conference game before it hosts rival Arizona Jan. 3 to open Pac-12 play. The Lumberjacks fell to 7-4.
"We were telling our guys, you don't want to be the first to Christmas," ASU assistant coach Rashon Burno said. "We wanted our guys to make sure they understand it's a 40 minute game. Stephen F. Austin is a scrappy team. Their record speaks for itself. So we knew preparation wise, we were in for a battle."
Several minutes into the second half it appeared it might not be. After a quiet first half that included four turnovers and six points, ASU sophomore point guard Tra Holder exploded to start the second period. He converted an And-1 to open the scoring in the half, then hit a 3-pointer and had a layup as the Sun Devils took their biggest lead of the game at 50-38 behind a 9-4 run.
The Lumberjacks wouldn't go away though and cut ASU's lead to just three points several times in the game's final six minutes before Holder was fouled with 25 seconds after getting a rebound and going the full length of the court with ASU leading 73-70.
Officials ruled the foul a Flagrant One. Holder made both free throws, ASU got the ball back, senior forward Willie Atwood was fouled and made two free throws, and the game was effectively over.
Atwood, who tied Holder for a team high 18 points, made all 10 of his foul shots in the game. The Sun Devils made just 3 of 7 free throws to start the game but finished converting 19 of their final 23.
Once again, ASU had a balanced scoring effort, with senior guard Gerry Blakes scoring 14 points and junior forward Obinna Oleka tallying 12 points. Oleka gave the Sun Devils important minutes off the bench, including several baskets on offensive rebound put-backs.
"Four us it's going to be a connected group," Burno said. "We've got really good parts who can score the ball, who are individually good. But as a group, we're better. So we preach to our guys being a well connected team and having a high level of awareness that we're better when we play together, when we share the ball and we do the things that impact winning."
Stephen F. Austin mixed up its defensive looks throughout, alternating from an extended half court trap to a full court press and even utilizing a 1-3-1 zone for large stretches of the game. The approach unbalanced Holder and his teammates early, with Holder managing six points and four turnovers in the first half.
Even so, the Sun Devils defended and hit the glass hard again, as has been its hallmark this season, and held a 41-34 halftime lead that it stretched into double digits early in the second half before the Lumberjacks brought it close for the duration.
A mediocre 3-point shooting team until it broke out in a 98-point effort against Houston Baptist Saturday, ASU's players know that their identify is being tenacious defensively and hitting the glass hard. But they made 8 of 24 3-pointers Tuesday, even with Saturday's hero shooter sophomore Kodi Justice going 1 of 6 in the game and Holder 1 of 5. Perhaps it's a sign that some of the team's shooters are starting to get it turned around.
"Over the last two games, we've been making shots, so we're trying to bring that along with the toughness as well," Blakes said.
"I feel good about my group," Atwood said. "I feel like everybody's still hungry. Nobody is relaxing. We still work every day like we haven't won a game yet."