Energetic 'Mill Madness' event becomes new Sun Devil basketball tradition

Arizona State men's and women's basketball teams played under the lights on Mill Avenue Friday night in a new Sun Devil tip-off event.

With a flashy police escort leading the tram full of Arizona State basketball players to the corner of 7th and Mill Avenue, ASU's inaugural "Mill Madness" event mirrored the attitude of Sun Devil players.  

The grand entrance was just the start of an energetic outdoor showcase that saw multiple skill challenges, as well as a three-point competition and slam dunk ensue over the course of about an hour. Each player from both the ASU women's and men's basketball teams showcased their own personalities, being introduced to a lively crowd through a tunnel of ASU cheerleaders and their own intro music. 

"It was terrific," ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. "It's an exciting night. A great night for the guys. The guys were thrilled. Beautiful weather, good turnout. Lively atmosphere, taking advantage of all the great things about our city."

Confidence and energy oozed out of both the women's and men's basketball players on hand to take part in ASU's "Mill Madness" event. It was the first time ASU has done an event of this sort in an outdoor setting on a hardwood basketball court, which was assembled earlier in the day.

Last year, ASU had a similar showcase at Wells Fargo Arena, with a brief 10-minute scrimmage, but the crowd wasn't up to par with the audience watching Friday night. The crowd surrounded the basketball court on all sides, with people even watching from adjacent buildings to see the action. 

"I thought it was great," ASU freshman guard Sam Cunliffe said. "I heard last year they had one and it wasn't like this. This setting, this atmosphere it made it special for this first event to be where people could first see me in an ASU uniform. They just told me we were going to have people watching us perform and I was like, 'Oh cool.' I didn't know it was going to be like this so I was so excited." 

The three skill challenges both the men and women competed in were the "Sun Devil Shootout," a three-point contest and a slam dunk contest. ASU junior guard Austin Witherhall led the winning group of ASU players in the "Sun Devil Shootout," making the contest-winning half-court shot. 

ASU junior guard Shannon Evans won the three-point contest with his partner, junior guard Courtney Ekmark. Evans and Ekmark combined for 31 total three-pointers in one minute, with Evans recording 17 of them. 

Hurley said prior to the competition that his team would be,"a great three-point shooting team" and he hoped the three-point contest Friday night would show that.

Evans was forced to sit out last season post-transfer from Buffalo where he played two seasons for Hurley and averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 assists for an NCAA Tournament team in 2014-15.

"I'm just looking forward to get back on the court," Evans said. "Compete with my teammates every night and give Sun Devil nation my all. It was so tough knowing that I was healthy and I wasn't able to play and it kind of took a toll on me, but at the same time, I took that year and I got better and I worked on my game."

In the dunk competition, ASU senior guard Torian Graham defended his title, winning the contest for the second year in a row. 

"It feels good to be able to get it done because Sam (Cunliffe), he likes to talk junk so it feels good to get it done," Graham said. "It was very exciting to to pull up and see a lot of fans. Last year, it wasn't the outcome we really wanted and this year it was very exciting. We liked it."

Cunliffe was an early favorite to win the dunk contest by players, but his plans to nail a free-throw line dunk and a behind-the-back slam fell through last minute. 

"The free throw line I couldn't connect and then I was going to do the behind the back for my last dunk, but I wasn't able to do it but it's okay, I'll save it," Cunliffe said. "I just think the floor was a little slippery and the floor was new and I was kind of scared to push all the way in, but I don't know. Did it look good at least?"

Cunliffe, a 6-foot-6 Scout top-50 player in the 2016 recruiting class from Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, got high praises from teammate Evans, who said Cunlifee is "one of the best players" he's seen around. Evans said with him, Cunliffe, junior guard Tra Holder and junior guard Kodi Justice ASU has a handful of players that will contribute this season.

Last season, Holder led the 15-17 Sun Devils with averages of 14.2 points and 3.7 assists as the point guard starter.

"I love our talent and we just got to keep taking steps and two weeks I like where we are and we just have to keep getting better and we are doing that on the practice floor and it's about where I thought we would be right now," Hurley said. "A lot of good players. Very strong guard play which I feel very conformable and familiar with."

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