Arizona State cruises past Nevada in First Four play-in game, advances to face TCU

DAYTON, Ohio – Any doubt as to whether the Arizona State Sun Devils were deserving of an NCAA Tournament was put to rest in a hurry.

The Sun Devils (23-12 ) disposed of Mountain West representative Nevada 98-73 in a First Four showdown at the University of Dayton Arena on Wednesday night. Now it’s on to Denver where the Sun Devils will face TCU at the Ball Center at 7:05 p.m. Friday.

It will be difficult for the Sun Devils to top their most recent performance, one in which they shot 63.6% (35-for-55), the best field goal percentage in 133 NCAA tournament games played at the arena. That bettered the previous mark of 63.3% by LaSalle (31-for-49) vs. Boise State on March 20, 2013.

“It was a complete performance for us,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “You want to be playing this way at this time of year. That’s what it’s all about. I truly believe that our schedule and the games we’ve been in, especially late in the season, prepares you for these type of games. And it was across the board, just everyone contributed. Our defense was outstanding in the first half.”

Players admitted they maybe felt a little disrespected by being relegated to the play-in game but are taking it in stride and look forward to their shot against one of the Big 12’s best.

“Personally I definitely had a chip on my shoulder, but at the end of the day, that’s just the mentality that I have,” Desmond Cambridge Jr. said. “I try to find things to keep me motivated. But I’m just happy to be here, so I’m not going to say I’m not grateful for the opportunity. But yeah, I did kind of feel disrespected that we’re in this First Four. But at the end of the day, I’m grateful, and we came and did what we were supposed to do, so next game.

D.J. Horne, who led all scorers with 20 points, agreed.

“I kind of felt like it was a little disrespect, but just happy to be here, happy for our opportunity, and I’m just glad that we won the game. Ready for the next one,” he said.

The only lead Nevada had was 3-0. ASU led after 20 minutes 53-26, with the 53 points marking the most in half by ASU this season. The previous best was 50 in the second half against San Diego while the previous high in a first half was 46 which the Sun Devils did twice.

The 53 points also marked the second-most in a half in school history in a tournament game behind the 54 the Sun Devils scored against Arkansas in 1991 in a 97-90 loss.

The biggest ASU lead was 30 points at 56-26 in the opening seconds of the second half. Nevada was not able to get closer than 19 points.

Rewind:Arizona State dominates Nevada to reach NCAA tournament

Neal a huge factor

Jamiya Neal has turned out to be a key factor, getting significantly more playing time with true freshman Austin Nunez out with a concussion since Feb. 18. Nunez had been one of the team’s best shooters and on-ball defenders.

The sophomore guard has scored 61 points in the last seven games with 18 rebounds, 12 assists, three blocks and eight steals.

He had a season-high 16 against the Wolf Pack, 10 of those coming in the first half. He also had four rebounds, three steals and two assists.

Hurley said Nunez has been a full participant in practice the last two days. He was dressed and warmed up with the team for the first time since being injured. Hurley said he is hopeful Nunez can play on Friday.

Nevada Wolf Pack guard Jarod Lucas (2) looks to the basket defended by Arizona State Sun Devils guard Desmond Cambridge Jr. (4) and forward Warren Washington (22) in the first half at UD Arena in Dayton on March 15, 2023.

Duo had extra motivation

The biggest storyline of the night was the presence of two former Nevada players in the ASU starting lineup in Cambridge Jr. and Warren Washington, both of whom came to Tempe over the summer. Cambridge has been ASU’s leading scorer with a knack for making clutch shots while Washington is the team’s leading rebounder.

Cambridge ended up with 17 points and six assists while Washington managed nine points, five rebounds, four assists and a block.

“It was cool. You know, but at the end of the day, I didn’t care who we were playing today. I’m just out here to play basketball. Yeah, that’s all I have to say on that,” Cambridge said.

Hurley wins coaching matchup

The coaching matchup was an intriguing one pitting two who won national championships as players, Hurley getting two at Duke and Nevada’s Steve Alford winning one at Indiana in 1987.

The two also coached against each other earlier when Alford was at UCLA from 2013 to 2018. He is rounding out his fourth year at Nevada.

“I know he’s a competitor and he’s a winner and he’s been a winner his whole life, so you know you’re going to get his best shot,” Hurley said of Alford. “His team is going to be ready and prepared. I don’t think it was a matter of them not playing well, I think it was us playing exceptional. I thought that was the story, especially early in the game.”

Arizona State Sun Devils forward Warren Washington (22) high-fives head coach Bobby Hurley while walking off the court in the first half against the Nevada Wolf Pack at UD Arena in Dayton on March 15, 2023.

Arizona State Sun Devils forward Warren Washington (22) high-fives head coach Bobby Hurley while walking off the court in the first half against the Nevada Wolf Pack at UD Arena in Dayton on March 15, 2023.

Fatigue factor

The Sun Devils have played seven straight road games stretching back to their last three games of the regular season. Then it was three at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. The quick turnaround from that last game in Las Vegas on Friday to the one against the Wolf Pack and counting the next on Friday against TCU will make five in nine days.

Players say they are not concerned because getting the opportunity to play on the big stage is enough to keep them going.

“No, not really worried,” Horne said. “Especially when you’re on this stage, I feel like you have to get up for every game, and if you’re not, what kind of basketball player are you? But we’re going to do a good job at resting and everything and get on the flight after this, so we’ll be ready to play next game.”

Hurley said having a game that starts at 7:05 p.m. helps. When his team last played in the First Four it had to go from Dayton to Tulsa, Oklahoma and had an afternoon game which it lost in lopsided fashion. So he is thankful for a few extra hours.

“I’m appreciative that the NCAA allows the game to take place at the very end of the night on Friday because the last time we were in here and won, it was I believe an afternoon game, and just wasn’t enough time really for us to physically bounce back,” he said. “Every hour counts, and that’ll be the focus the next 36 hours.”

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What is next

Arizona State advances to face No. 6 seed TCU (21-12, 9-9 in Big 12) on Friday at Ball Center in Denver. TCU was the fifth-place finisher in the Big 12 behind Kansas, Texas, Kansas State and Baylor. The Horned Frogs are ranked No. 22 nationally.

TCU has already played two Pac-12 teams, both early in the season. It defeated Cal 59-48 on Nov. 25 in a neutral site tournament and Utah 75-71 on Dec. 21 in Salt Lake City.

“I have a lot of respect for them and the season they’ve had,” Hurley said of his next opponent. “The league was rated one of the best in the country this year. I talked about us being battle tested. Well, so were they. I think they play elite competition.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona State advances to face TCU in first round of NCAA Tournament