PHOENIX — Amongst five Arizona State Sun Devils and five Saint Mary’s Gaels, the only moving thing was Jordan Ford.
Saint Mary’s senior guard moved at a different speed than everyone on the floor during the Gaels’ 96-56 win over ASU on Dec. 18. Ford glided. He knifed through the lane, curled around screens like he was entering the home stretch at a track meet and baffled defenders with a flurry of crossovers. His step-backs put defenders on skates and his layups arced over the revolving door of Sun Devils tasked with guarding him, none of whom succeeded.
By the time both teams went to the locker rooms at halftime, Ford outscored the Sun Devils, 22-19. One half later, Ford stood center stage at Talking Stick Resort Arena as the Basketball Hall of Fame Showcase’s MVP. His final stat-line: 34 points on 12-18 shooting — including a perfect 8-8 to open the game — and a career-high seven made threes.
Without Ford’s hot start, the Gaels likely wouldn’t have followed suit.
“When I’m playing well and I’m really aggressive, I feel like the other guys follow,” Ford said. “So it’s my job to take it to them and the other guys will follow my lead. That’s what we saw tonight: Everybody was really confident, Malik [Fitts] stepped up and we had other guys follow too.”
Ford’s hot start wasn’t the only way of looking at the game, but it was undoubtedly the catalyst.
Early on, both teams traded baskets until Ford went on a 12-0 run that put ASU to bed. First, Ford received a pass from Tommy Kuhse near the free-throw line, then accelerated into the lane and took one of his trademark, acrobatic layups that banked in off the top right side of the backboard. On the next possession, Ford’s pump-fake sent Arizona State freshman Jaelen House crashing into Ford as he heaved a NBA-range three.
But Ford wasn’t finished picking on House: 23 seconds later, Ford’s pump-fake in transition sent House flying near his own bench. Romello White suffered a similar fate moments later, this time running into Matthias Tass’s hard screen that set up Ford’s third triple.
The senior capped off his 8-8 start with a bang. His huge step-back sent Kimani Edwards reeling, the Gaels’ bench cheering and ASU staring at a 23-point deficit.
Update: Jordan Ford is now at 8-8 from the field (including 5-5 from three) including this nasty step back.— tyler manion (@TylerManionTV) December 19, 2019
ASU 12 - St Mary’s 35 | 6:59 left 1H pic.twitter.com/QgSObRwYTK
“Ford came out absolutely on fire,” Saint Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said. “He hit some tough shots and just got us some separation early. I think we got our heads down a little bit, Malik [Fitts] started making shots and we shot the ball really well. The fact that Jordan hit some tough ones early took some pressure off us and let us play a little more freely.”
Leading 51-19 at half, Saint Mary’s was just getting started.
The Gaels’ 40-point win over ASU wasn’t a one-man effort.
This comes as no surprise, given head coach Randy Bennett’s teams have run some of the most pass-heavy offenses in the sport. The Gaels’ have actually been searching for a reliable third option behind Ford and Malik Fitts, but that search won’t get any easier after Wednesday night.
It was a team-wide beatdown. Eleven of the 12 Gaels that played scored, six made a three and the team shot 60% from the floor — including 16-26 (61.5%) from three. Ford’s first half undoubtedly sparked it, but Malik Fitts (20 points), Tanner Krebs (11) and the guiding hand of Tommy Kuhse (five points, eight assists) were invaluable.
“Ford got us going — as a leader, that’s what he does for us — and a lot of guys just picked up after that,” Fitts said. “We haven’t really gotten to good start[s] like we should, but tonight we put together two halves.”
Despite not scoring as much — and with plenty of reserves in the game — Saint Mary’s shot better than 50% from three and from the field in the second half. Or, as Ford put it afterwards, the Gaels “stepped on [ASU’s] throats.” Once the Gaels got into an offensive rhythm, the outcome was inevitable.
“I had a ton of respect for [Saint Mary’s] coming into the game,” Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley said. “They were more impressive in person.”
One of the most unexpected parts about the win was that ASU pushed the pace on Saint Mary’s, the nation’s 25th-slowest team, and the Gaels obliged.
Midway through Saint Mary’s 20-0 first-half run, Tanner Krebs snuck past ASU’s transition defense — to the ire of the Sun Devils’ staff, this involved standing alone, wide-open, right in front of ASU’s bench — and knocked down a few backbreaking corner threes. Fitts pushed the pace on most of his defensive rebounds. And most impressively, Kuhse — who was consistently the fourth or fifth-most athletic guard on the floor at any given time — kept up with Remy Martin, Alonzo Verge and House, yet only committed one turnover.
Given how quick teams in the West Coast Conference play (Santa Clara, Pepperdine, Gonzaga and San Francisco are all top 100 in terms of tempo, per KenPom), for Saint Mary’s to run with a much more athletic, high-major team and win like this could be a promising sign.
Dive into the numbers of the game, and the outcome looks the same: Saint Mary’s demolished ASU.
Despite being one-point underdogs, Saint Mary’s gave the Sun Devils its biggest loss since losing to Kentucky 115-69 on Nov. 28, 2016. It’s the biggest loss a Power-5 has suffered all year. Before facing Saint Mary’s, ASU had the nation’s 14th best three-point defense (26.5%) and was ranked 44th defense efficiency. Now the Sun Devils rank 77th and 59th, respectively.
Take away one of Ford or Fitts, and Saint Mary’s still would’ve won. Take away the three-point line, and the Gaels would’ve won by 24. Even if Alonzo Verge Jr. shot 100% from the field, Saint Mary’s would’ve won by double-figures.
Strangely enough, Ford wasn’t the game’s leading scorer. That distinction goes to Arizona State’s Alonzo Verge Jr., who scored 43 points off the bench on 18-29 shooting.
“Once he got going, we had to keep riding him and giv[ing] him the ball every time we went down the court,” Hurley said. “That was frustrating that you have to resort to that tactic, but that’s where we were at.”
Before Wednesday night, the former Moberly Area Community College Greyhound had 67 points to his name. That all changed once Verge checked in, drove to the basket nearly every time he got the ball and became the sixth reserve player to have a 40-point outing in the past 10 seasons. If a 40-point outing could be quiet, his was that.
“This will go down in the record books too: that a guy who scored 43 points, yet had a minus-38 point differential,” Hurley said. “It’s absurd to see that. A lot of crazy things happened tonight.”
Crazy is one word to describe the Gaels’ win, and so is redeeming.
Stop if this sounds familiar: Saint Mary’s is 11-2, but they’ve beaten mostly bad teams at home. Although the Sun Devils are bound to take a hit in the NET rankings after this game, Saint Mary’s earned not only its best win of the season, but also its fourth Quad. 1-3 win on the year, per Warren Nolan’s team sheets. Plus, the game was on a neutral floor (even though Tempe is less than 10 miles away from Talking Stick Resort Arena), which will be reflected in the NET.
March is a long way off, but this could be the win that puts the Gaels on the right side of the bubble.
And what a win it was.
If Saint Mary’s can do this against the nation’s (former) 14th-ranked three-point defense, then it can do it against anyone. That includes Gonzaga.