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Unpacking USF’s historic blowout of Arizona State

USF forward Isaiah Hawthorne (3) dunks during the first half of a non-conference basketball game against Arizona State at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Dec. 21, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

USF head coach Chris Gerlufsen, forward Isaiah Hawthorne and center Saba Gigiberia all said the same thing: They took Monday’s loss personally.

“Taking it personally” manifested itself in the best possible way on Wednesday night, when the Dons bludgeoned 25th-ranked Arizona State, 97-60.

It’s the third-largest margin of victory for an unranked opponent over a ranked team in the last 35 years, and it’s the largest ever for an unranked West Coast Conference (WCC) team over a ranked foe.

A team that two nights earlier lost to a lowly UT Arlington side, the same UT Arlington side that became the first team to lose to a moribund Cal program this season, handed a 37-point thrashing to a ranked Sun Devils side that hadn’t lost since Nov. 13.

“Sometimes you have to go through some adversity to see true character,” Gerlufsen said. “We revealed our character tonight. The last 36-48 hours have been tough for our staff and our players.”

“Taking it personally” meant every drive and every pass was made with crisp execution and efficiency. It meant playing physical defense without getting into foul trouble. It turned the same big men who had gotten the ball stripped away two nights earlier by opponents too short to sniff their armpits into ruthless shot-blockers.

It’s the sort of win that not only makes up for the UT Arlington loss, but the sort that opens up eyes around the country. USF’s game against ASU was by far the biggest late game on the schedule Wednesday night, and it was televised by CBS Sports. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt included the beatdown in his roundup on his nightly edition of SportsCenter.

USF guard Khalil Shabazz (0) reacts to a technical foul during the second half of a non-conference basketball game against Arizona State at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Dec. 21, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Two nights after the Dons looked like a hapless group of hastily assembled parts, San Francisco (10-4) looked like a force that can compete with, and perhaps beat, the likes of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. Khalil Shabazz scored a game-high 26, knocking down five 3-pointers from all sorts of angles. Isaiah Hawthorne, who spent much of Monday’s loss on the bench in foul trouble, scored 19 in a masterful performance on both ends of the floor.

“I just had to not play with my hands,” Hawthorne said. “Just keep my hands up, move my feet, don’t get lazy and stay engaged for the whole possession.”

Seven-footers Saba Gigiberia and Volodymyr Markovetskyy combined for just seven points, but played with newfound swagger and energy. After both struggled with turnovers and defensive assignments on Monday, they served as game-changing presences against Arizona State (11-2). Gigiberia was credited with three assists, including a pair of passes that made him look like a Georgian Nikola Jokic.

“I have that in me,” he said with a smile some 30 minutes after the game as he watched local youths take shots in War Memorial Gym.

He led Shabazz in the lane early in the second half with perfect geometry, and gave Marcus Williams a behind-the-back dish to extend the lead to 89-42.

The 47-point lead was the largest on the night, a threshold the Dons reached five times. They led by as much as 32 in the first half and doubled ASU’s score for much of the night, leading 94-47 after a Justin Bieker layup before emptying the bench. The Sun Devils closed the game on a 13-3 run, with assistant coach Jermaine Kimbrough imploring his starters to press the USF reserves.

Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley argues with a referee during the second half of a non-conference basketball game against USF at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Dec. 21, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Kimbrough coached the final four minutes and 15 seconds after head coach Bobby Hurley was ejected. Hurley picked up two technical fouls in the second half, much to the delight of the majority of the crowd of 2,756 that wore USF colors. It was a gathering that, while still nearly a thousand seats short of a sellout, had far more life to it than the typical Hilltop crowd. The 26-3 run to open the game drew multiple standing ovations, and a couple minutes before his ejection, Hurley was serenaded with derisive chants of his name.

Hurley, known as a firebrand since his playing days at Duke, wasn’t the only member of the traveling party to lose his temper. Devan Cambridge was assessed a flagrant foul after getting tangled up with Hawthorne midway through the second half.

“He was talking a little bit of nonsense, and I think his feelings got the best of him,” Hawthorne said. “There was no reason to really jaw back at him. My teammates got me together and just told me to lock in. It was just a distraction to get me out of my mental state.”

Cambridge’s brother, Desmond, missed the game with a non-Covid illness. Desmond averages 11.5 points per game.

His presence wouldn’t have affected the outcome. Perhaps the Sun Devils would have been a few points closer. Perhaps they would have shot better than 17-for-30 on free throws or 5 of 26 from 3-point range. But this USF team simply wasn’t losing.

Julian Rishwain, who had shot just 25% so far this season, made that clear early on. His and-1, followed by a Hawthorne dunk, stretched the lead to 16-2, and when Hurley called timeout, Rishwain returned to the USF sideline with a massive chest bump from assistant coach Mike Plank.

“I tried to take some of the pressure off him by bringing him off the bench, and I think he just listened and let his defense get him going,” Gerlufsen said. “It was good for him to show glimpses of himself and get back to the guy that I know he is.”

Rishwain scored just five points, but like Gigiberia, his attitude and body language was different than it had been for most of the prior 13 games. His transition layup with four minutes left in the first half extended the lead to 43-11 and signaled that the game would be a cakewalk.

Less than 24 hours later, the Dons were on the court again, and they avoided a trap game with a comfortable 85-53 win over a hapless Hartford team that’s been a victim of an administration that doesn’t hold athletics in high regard. Hawthorne scored 20, setting a career high for a second night in a row.