Playing one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the country, Arizona State got its third early-season crack at a Top-15 opponent on Tuesday.
In each of the two previous occasions, the Sun Devils were humiliated, losing by 46 points to Kentucky and 33 points to Purdue. Following the loss to the Boilermakers on Dec. 6, ASU coach Bobby Hurley ripped his team apart for its effort, or lack thereof.
A key difference between those games and Tuesday's opportunity against No. 9 Creighton is that this one was at home in Wells Fargo Arena, while the other two were in the Bahamas and New York City, respectively. That's an advantage, even if at least several thousand of the 6,793 in attendance were wearing Creighton blue.
Ultimately, it didn't result in an ASU win, but the Sun Devils played much better and certainly didn't embarrass themselves in a 96-85 loss. That probably should be considered progress, even as Hurley said clearly following the game that moral victories don't count.
"This was a fast-paced game, Creighton pushes the ball, they have threats in transition," Hurley said. "These guys expended a lot of energy chasing the guys around the court. We didn’t sit in a zone and let guys rest. We scrambled, we fought, we pressed, and the five guys we started all played over 30 minutes and they all had something left in the tank late. That was exciting to see.”
Even so, the Sun Devils dropped to 6-6, falling to .500 for the first time this season. The Bluejays are still rolling, undefeated at 12-0 as they now turn their focus to Big East play with a Dec. 28 game against Seton Hall. ASU, meanwhile, needs to win its final non-conference game Tuesday against Central Arkansas to avoid taking a losing record into the Pac-12 schedule.
ASU led early and was playing some of its best basketball of the season before ultimately trailing 45-40 at halftime as the Bluejays started heating up from behind the three-point line.
Creighton started the second half on an 11-6 run to take its first double digit lead at 56-46 at 16:48. From there, it stretched its lead to as much as 20 points near the midway point of the period.
“We kind of came out a little stagnant and were a little tired to start off,” ASU junior guard Kodi Justice said. “We kind of picked it back up, but they made quite a few threes to get going right there and we kind of were behind quick. But we never gave up.”
The Sun Devils continued to battle and cut their deficit down to just 10 points on a three-pointer by junior guard Torian Graham with 5:13 to play, but it was as close as they'd get.
Graham and junior guard Tra Holder had 24 points apiece for the Sun Devils, and also filled up the stat sheet in other ways. Holder had seven rebounds and five assists while Graham had six rebounds and four assists.
But ASU didn't get much offense from others on the night except senior Obinna Oleka, who had 19 points and an impressive 16 rebounds.
“That was a point where you learn a lot about the character and if they’re responding appropriately,” Hurley said. “The answer was yes. I had a lot of respect for how the team was competing, diving for loose balls, scrambling to try to create turnovers so we can try to stay in the game and keep pushing forward in the game.
"If we can play that way consistently through the rest of the season, we’ll have some success.”
Where the Sun Devils really couldn't hang with Creighton was on the defensive side of the floor. A team that entered the night making more than 44 percent of its three-pointers hit 14 of 25 attempts from the distance on the night. The Bluejays started out cold from the floor but just kept getting warmer and warmer until they were downright hot shooting the basketball.
Three-point specialists Toby Hegner and Isaiah Zierden each at 12 points, going 4 of 6 and 4 of 5 from three-point range, respectively. Leading scorer Marcus Foster poured in 29 points on 10 of 18 shooting, including 3 of 8 from behind the arc. Redshirt freshman center Justin Patton, a former Scout.com five-star prospect, had a key sequence in the first half that included a left hand jump hook and a three-pointer. He had 18 points and looked like a potential first-round NBA pick.
Patton's lone three-pointer, like so many of the shots Creighton made from the perimeter were wide open. The Bluejays do a great job of collapsing the defense and then making the extra pass, often to the corner for the uncontested look at the basket.
“They have a lot of shooters,” Hurley said. “There were some times where we did possibly lose a couple of guys with some of their set plays, but they put an enormous amount of pressure on you. They just outshot us from the three-point line and that was the difference in the game."
ASU went small with a starting lineup of Holder, junior guard Shannon Evans, Graham, junior guard Kodi Justice and Oleka in order to contend with the perimeter oriented Bluejays. They only had eight available scholarship players for the second game in a row, with junior Maurice O'Field not playing due to concussion symptoms. Post players Ramon Vila and Andre Adams combined for just five minutes, so the Sun Devils essentially played just six guys. Their starters each played 30-plus minutes.
Early on, the Sun Devils raced out to a 13-5 lead, highlighted by a dunk by Oleka off an alley-oop pass from Evans. It got ASU's crowd as energized as it has been all season.
An encouraging sign for ASU is that it was having success on the offensive end even without shooting the ball well from the perimeter. A team that has lived and died from the three-point line made just 3 of 11 shots from the distance in the first half and yet was hanging tight with one of the best teams in the country. The Sun Devils finished 7 of 25 from three-point range in the game though, which was too tough to overcome when coupled with their inability to get enough stops on the defensive end.
“It seems like that’s been our nemesis when we haven’t had a good percentage from behind the 3-point line," Hurley said. "Hopefully, we can get that figured out on a more consistent basis.”