Sun Devils get first conference win of the season, beat WSU 84-73

Behind Kodi Justice and Tra Holder's combined 36 points, Arizona State avoids its second consecutive 0-4 season start to conference play

Everyone at Wells Fargo Arena could feel it coming.

Arizona State sophomore guard Kodi Justice had already hit three three-pointers in a four-minute span with eight minutes to go in the second half and it wasn't looking like his confidence would die down anytime soon.

And after Justice came up with his second steal against the Washington State Cougars on Thursday night with 8:00 left in the second half, he raced down the floor with his head held high.

Making a crisp behind-the-back pass across the lane to junior forward Willie Atwood, Atwood finished the flashy play from Justice by slamming down a two-handed dunk that brought the 5,047 in attendance to its feet.

"I just saw Willie running the floor hard and I thought that you gotta reward the big for running, so I had to find a way to get it to him and the only way I felt like I could was throwing it behind my back and I got it to him and he threw it down so it was a big play for us and got us going," Justice said.

Atwood's slam was enough to reclaim the Sun Devils' double-digit lead in the second half and led to a 84-73 victory over the Cougars on Thursday night.

ASU improved to 11-6 and 1-3 in the Pac-12 while the Cougars dropped to 9-7 and 2-2. The Sun Devils have now beaten WSU six straight times in Tempe. 

"I love the creativity that (Justice) shows with his passing," ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. "I think that was the one moment the building was at its peak today -- with the behind-the-back pass to Willie."

With the win, ASU avoided its second consecutive 0-4 start to Pac-12 play.

Last year, ASU lost its conference opener on the road to the Arizona Wildcats, lost to Oregon and Oregon State on the road, and then to Utah at home. The Sun Devils finished the 2014-15 season 18-16 overall and 9-9 in conference play. 

Before last season, the Sun Devils hadn't lost four-straight to open conference play since former ASU head coach Herb Sendek's first year coaching ASU in the 2006-07 season when the team lost its first 14 games of conference play. 

"It's great to get our first conference win," Hurley said. "I thought our defense was really solid. I think we have a chance to continue to play well and play better. It's also nice to see us get off to a good start in a game and build a lead in the first half and have them chase us most of the game because we've been playing from behind too much early in games."

Helping ASU get off to a good start Thursday night was junior forward Obinna Oleka. Oleka was 4 of 6 in the first half for nine points. The Cougars were seemingly leaving Oleka open for the majority of his shots, and Oleka connected from three-point range, mid-range, and in the paint. 

In addition to Oleka, sophomore guard Tra Holder had another standout performance despite not scoring until he nailed down a three-pointer at the 6:40 mark of the first half.

And while Holder managed to increase ASU's 9-0 run to a 12-0 run over a 6:16 span with his three-pointer, he didn't stop there.  

Knocking down one more three-pointer and two free throws with 5:40 left in the first half, Holder scored a total of eight points in a one minute. With Holder's assistance -- both shooting and by dishing out assists -- ASU went on a 21-2 run over a 8:03 span in the first half and had a lead as large as 17 points. 

By halftime, ASU led 40-25 and the Sun Devils dished out nine assists on 11 made baskets. Senior guard Gerry Blakes led the team with three assists in the first half, but the Sun Devils were unable to continue their run into the second half. 

WSU opened the second on a 10-0 run of its own and for a few minutes, the game looked back in reach for the Cougars. But as quickly as WSU looked like it had gained momentum, Holder broke the Cougars' run with a layup and-1 with 16:47 left in the second half. Holder's basket then started ASU's own 8-0 run over 1:09. 

Holder ended the first half with 10 points on 2 of 5 shooting from the field and finished the game with 20 points on 5 of 12 shooting.

“I didn’t feel like I was really open in the beginning, but I found my open spots," Holder said. 

Scoring 20 points Thursday, Holder became the first ASU player to score 20-plus points in five-straight games since James Harden did it back in 2007-08 -- Harden's freshman season. Holder was averaging 21.1 points in the past seven ASU games prior to Thursday. 

Giving ASU a 1-2 punch at guard, Justice finished the game with 16 points on 6 of 11 shooting from the field, 4 of 9 from three-point range. 

"Coach gives us confidence that if you're open, shoot it," Justice said. "If you're a shooter and that's what you're here to do, then that's what you have to do."   

Also coming into Thursday's game with a hot streak was WSU junior forward Josh Hawkinson who was averaging 17.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Hawkinson had already broken WSU's school record with 10-straight double-doubles this season.

Against the Sun Devils, Hawkinson recorded his 13th double-double of the season thanks to a valiant second half effort, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds on the night. Hawkinson never seemed to get into an offensive rhythm in the first half, only scoring three points on 1 of 4 shooting before sitting down after picking up his third foul with 8:18 left to play in the first half.  

Handing him his third foul was no other than senior forward Eric Jacobsen, who took the charge. 

"I thought Eric didn't shoot well tonight, but he made one of the biggest plays in the game in the first half with the charge on Hawkinson to pick up his third foul," Hurley said. "It was huge for us."

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