ASU Basketball: Redemption in Dayton — Sun Devils defeat St. John’s in First Four

DAYTON, OHIO - MARCH 20: Luguentz Dort #0 of the Arizona State Sun Devils high fives Zylan Cheatham #45 during the second half against the St. John's Red Storm in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 20, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
DAYTON, OHIO - MARCH 20: Luguentz Dort #0 of the Arizona State Sun Devils high fives Zylan Cheatham #45 during the second half against the St. John's Red Storm in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at UD Arena on March 20, 2019 in Dayton, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

A year ago, ASU basketball’s lack of size eliminated it from the First Four. On Wednesday night, this season’s identity overhaul carved the path to advance.

Two days ago, Bobby Hurley arrived in Dayton, Ohio, with an overwhelming sense of familiarity. As he entered the practice floor at the University of Dayton Arena, his team officially began an NCAA Tournament run that would take place on the same court, at the same time and with the same seed it held a season ago.

Jokingly, Hurley suggested buying a house here. After all, Arizona State and First Four contemporary N.C. Central became the first schools to play at Dayton in consecutive seasons.

Perceptible scenery aside, ASU’s fourth-year coach noted another important connection. His team’s opponent, St. John’s, was a near-replica of last year’s Sun Devils. A unit with a loose cannon from 3-point range and the ability to outscore any opponent.

Hurley knew the dangers of this. But he also knew the advantages. With a squad that abandoned a run-and-gun tempo for the ground-and-pound, he could emulate the perils once inflicted upon him.

And that’s what he did.

After the under-16 timeout in the first half, the Sun Devils (23-10, 13-7 Pac-12) went on a 25-7 run against the Red Storm (21-13, 9-11 Big East), building a 33-15 advantage that wouldn’t crumble during a 74-65 victory in the First Four of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

“I really love how we started and really took control of the game,” Hurley said. “It was nice to have that margin.”

With the game tied at eight, ASU switched its defense from man to a 2-3 zone. Yet unlike many styles the Sun Devils saw in Pac-12 play, they extended their defense beyond the perimeter.

More from Devils in Detail

Outside an initial make from junior guard Shamorie Ponds, the aggression paid dividends. The Red Storm shot 9-of-30 (30 percent) in the first half, including a scoreless stretch that exceeded five minutes.

From there, the Sun Devils executed quick offense. With 6-foot-7 inch Marvin Clark as the Red Storm’s final line of defense, Romello White and Zylan Cheatham took advantage in the low post, scoring eight combined first half points and opening chances for Luguentz Dort, who had 11 points off cuts and kick-out opportunities.

“We knew they were a good team going one-on-one,” Dort said. “By going on the zone, it was hard for them to get involved, like, to play and beat us one-on-one because we had to help.”

“It established a focus of getting the ball inside,” Hurley added. “And then Lu (Dort) is just a big guard that can move so well. He’s pretty nasty on defense.

“When you have a guy like that, you could put him on any of the top perimeter players on a team, and he’s going to make them work for everything.”

As well as ASU played in the first 15 minutes, the remaining 25 weren’t pretty. To close the half, the Sun Devils had a scoreless streak that exceeded four minutes, settling for isolation jumpshots and broken offensive sets.

That allowed the Red Storm to find momentum. In total, St. John’s forced 21 ASU turnovers, cutting its deficit to seven at varying points in the second half. Much like Oregon’s pressure in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, the Sun Devils got careless, allowing 27 of the Red Storm’s 65 points to come off turnovers.

However, that would be the extent of the struggles. As persistent as St. John’s was, it couldn’t capitalize on its opportunities, shooting 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) from 3-point range and making just 56.5 percent of its free throw attempts.

Ponds led the charge for the Red Storm, contributing 25 points and four assists. LJ Figueroa followed suit with a double-double at 19 points and 10 rebounds, and former Arizona Wildcat Justin Simon added 10 points.

In turn, the Sun Devils were able to return to White’s post presence and halt the frenetic pace. His last points — a slam dunk ahead of St. John’s full-court press – gave ASU a 66-57 lead with 1:54 remaining, effectively ending the Red Storm’s comeback chances.

The tournament win was a first for ASU’s coach and his players. But for the team’s vocal senior, Cheatham, the win meant a little more.

A hometown product from South Phoenix, the 6-foot-8 forward witnessed ASU’s previous demises in postseason play, growing up and while sitting out due to transfer rules last season.

On Wednesday night, he got his chance and delivered.

“Being out there was just a privilege for me,” he said. “It was an unbelievable environment, unbelievable event. And as far as just getting a win, I’m going to say that was my city.”

With the victory, ASU moves on to the Round of 64 in the West region, facing No. 6 seed Buffalo on Friday at 1 p.m. Hurley formerly coached the Bulls from 2013-15 before relinquishing duties to Nate Oats and coming to Tempe.

While factors must be managed before then — including the health of Remy Martin, who played just 23 minutes tonight — the Sun Devils did what they haven’t done in previous tournament appearances — advance.

It was a year ago on this floor that ASU’s quickness and offense couldn’t negate the physicality of a team like Syracuse. One year later, the Sun Devils applied that assertive style.

Better yet, they’re willing to come back for more.

More. ASU Basketball: 2019 NCAA Tournament Roundtable. light

“I’m going to say we didn’t pack for just one game,” Cheatham said. “We want to take this season as far as it can go.”

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.