Bobby Hurley will be facing his old team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona State did its part to set up a date with Buffalo, beating St. John’s 74-65 on Wednesday in the final game of the First Four in front of 11,827 fans at UD Arena for the program’s first tournament win since 2009.
The Sun Devils lost a play-in game last year but left no doubt this time. They never trailed, ensuring they would advance to meet Buffalo on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hurley was the Bulls’ coach from 2013 to 2015 when he left for ASU after guiding Buffalo to its first Mid-American Conference tournament title.
“It’s more for me that I love coaching these guys,” Hurley said. “They’re such a fun group to coach and they have a bunch of winners. And just we don’t want the journey to end. And that’s what it’s about this time of year. You just gotta — you’ve got to keep making plays and attack each game.
“I haven’t really had time to think about how I’m going to feel on Friday. But (Buffalo coach and former assistant) Nate (Oats) and I speak, and we both agreed that we’re really good friends, and we both helped each other tremendously in our careers, but that’s probably not going to matter a whole lot on Friday.”
ASU jumped out to an early lead, at one point holding St. John’s off the board for more than five minutes, and the Sun Devils seem to just cruise to a 38-25 halftime advantage – one that would have been even more sizable had Hurley not been given a technical foul for questioning the official at the end of the period. They were up by as many as 18 points in the first half, and the closest the Johnnies drew after that was within seven in the final minute.
In a sloppy game that saw 37 turnovers combined, St. John’s struggled mightily against ASU’s zone defense. Starters Marvin Clark III and Mustapha Heron were in foul trouble most of the second half (both eventually fouled out), and the Red Storm posted their worst shooting percentage of the season at just 31.9 percent, including making just 8 of 31 behind the arc (25.8 percent). They made 13 of 23 free throws.
“I really love how we started the game and really took control of the game, and I thought our defense was very good,” Hurley said. “We mixed our defenses up some, and our zone was pretty effective in the first half. And we played well on the offensive end, 14 of 26 at halftime from the field. We played clean on that end of the floor, and it was nice to have that margin.”
Freshman Luguentz Dort led ASU with 21 points, despite a nasty fall grabbing a long rebound early in the second half, and Zylan Cheatham had 14, but the Sun Devils were well-balanced with 17 points coming from the bench. Remy Martin, coming back from a groin injury suffered in the Pac-12 Tournament, had six points, four rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes.
Shamorie Ponds, who is expected to forego his senior year to enter the NBA draft, recorded a game-high 25 points for St. John’s, while L.J. Figueroa added 19 points and 10 rebounds and Justin Simon contributed 10 points.
St. John’s finishes the season 21-13. The Red Storm were seventh in the Big East regular-season standings and received the last spot into the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
“Simple things we did all season, it just wasn’t there for us tonight,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said.
For Arizona State, it feels like the season is just getting to its peak.
“I’m going to say we didn’t pack for just one game,” Cheatham said. “We’re really locked in. We’re really focused. And obviously this is a big step in the right direction. But we’re not content by any means. We’re hungry for more. We want to take this season as far as it can go.”