Sun Devils squeak by Tigers
PRINCETON, N.J. - Khalid Thomas’ season started off the season with his luggage getting lost on the way to China and scoring two points through four games. After tonight, suffice to say things are looking up for the Portland native and ASU’s junior college transfer.
With the Tigers’ defense fixated on slowing down an unconscious career-night by Remy Martin, the junior was able to split a double team and launch an airborne bullet to Thomas who calmly drained a corner triple with 3.2 seconds left to give Arizona State (4-2) a decisive two-point lead in the closing seconds of their 67-65 win over Princeton (0-5).
Princeton’s upset bid officially came to an end when Jaelin Llewellyn’s buzzer-beating prayer from just inside half court ricocheted off the top corner of the backboard.
“The play was for me to come off a pick and they sent a double,” Martin said. “and I just spun off and I saw Khalid in the corner and I trusted my teammate and I gave him the best pass to get to it and he had the confidence to knock it down. Usually, I would shoot that shot but I remembered Khalid in the gym and he’s worked on that shot.”
“I really wasn’t nervous,” Thomas added. “I put in the reps all the time I was comfortable. I was wide open and I had time.”
It was a surprisingly hard-fought victory over the winless Tigers as Princeton led for much of the game despite a career-high 33 points for Martin. Thomas has his own career-high as a Sun Devil with 14 points, converting 3-4 shots from three-point range.
The Tigers raced out to an early 26-14 advantage behind a dominant effort from their Senior Center Richmond Aririguzoh who finished with a monster 16-point, 18-rebound, 5-assist effort.
“He’s a load down there and it’s tough to leave and go double because of the perimeter shooting,” said ASU head coach Bobby Hurley, “and it becomes a pick your poison. I think we’re fortunate to have a guy like Romello White who’s a big body and can anchor down in the post, but he’s a handful.”
Arizona State struggled to diversify their offense as Thomas became the first Sun Devil outside of Martin or Romello White to get a bucket over 13 minutes into the game.
Spurred on by Thomas’ energy off the bench and Martin’s prowess ASU closed the gap to 31-26 at the half.
With 14:34 left in the second half and Princeton coming on strong, Martin took the one-man act to another level scored 18 of Arizona State’s next 20 points.
“I was in awe of watching it when he was going on that run,” Hurley admitted, “to get us back in that game I was just sitting back and watching how brilliant he is.”
The junior guard showed off a varied offensive game, yo-yoing his way through Tigers’ with an irrepressible handle while simultaneously annihilating them from deep, nailing three of his six shots from long range.
Martin played the whole second half with a postseason like intensity. The kind of fixation you typically only see with a dog staring down a tennis ball. He wasn’t going to lose.
That emotion boiled over as tears began leaking down Martin’s face as soon as the final buzzer sounded.
“I just left it all out there,” Martin noted. “I didn’t plan to be emotional. I just had nothing left in me. Three games in four days are really tough. This is what I want to do in life, this is where I want to go. I put all my hard work into this game and it’s just tears of joy.”
It was a similarly evocative night for Thomas and Hurley.
Thomas came into to Tempe as the second-ranked Junior College player in the nation out of the College of Southern Idaho. Expectations were high that he could be an immediate contributor on a team expected to compete for a third consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
And yet coming into tonight’s game, Thomas had played a total of just 11 minutes and hadn’t hit a shot from the field. Nonetheless, Hurley liked what he saw from Thomas in limited minutes against Virginia 48 hours prior and needing a boost midway through the first half he called upon him again.
Furthermore, Thomas started the second half and justified Hurley’s confidence when he drilled a three-ball with 70 seconds left to give ASU a 64-60 lead.
The Tigers roared back as Drew Frieberg quickly responding with a money ball of his own and after Martin missed a heat check three, Tosan Evbuomwan’s lay-in looked like it was going to give the Tigers their second big upset over ASU in two years, but Martin and Thomas had other ideas in mind.
Thomas was mobbed as soon as the clock hit all zeros and he got his welcome to major college basketball moment.
“To see (my teammates) all amped like that,” Thomas described, “it put this happiness inside me. It was really cool to see.”
Hurley’s emotion came from returning to the state where he was born and raised, where his dad won over 1,000 games and 26 State Championships, where he introduced himself to the nation and first caught the attention of legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski as one of the best high school players in the country.
With his dad and other family members in attendance, Hurley seemed on edge the whole night.
“This was a tough game,” Hurley commented, “an emotional game for me coming back here and seeing my dad in the crowd and having my family there it was just a slight bit of distraction. The old tendency when I played was to look at the crowd and look at my Dad.”
Ultimately Hurley couldn’t help but revert back to another old habit of his, he won.