A few weeks ago, Herb Sendek noted a trend he had seen across the college basketball landscape. Every day, as he watches ESPN, he sees upsets in college basketball. Teams losing to teams they have no business losing to. The Sun Devils at times struggled with mid-majors, but through nine games, they had yet to be upset.
That ended on Saturday night, as Arizona State fell 84-81 in triple-overtime to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks at Wells Fargo Arena. The loss drops ASU to just 6-5 with two games remaining before Pac-12 play.
"We knew we had a challenge tonight and we did not step up to get over it," said Sendek. "You have to give Lehigh a lot of credit. We knew coming in that they were a good team. They took Villanova to the wire and they had a good win at DePaul."
Throughout the season, the Sun Devils had been playing with fire at home against mid-majors. They beat Bethune-Cookman by 10 points and both Pepperdine and Colgate by seven points. Saturday night, the Sun Devils got burned.
"We felt like we should have won that game," said sophomore forward Savon Goodman. "We felt like we should have win every game at home. They played their hearts out, they are well coached. I feel like we missed a lot of free throws down the stretch that we should have made. One or two more 50-50 balls that we get and I think we run away with that game."
Once again, ASU started slow out of the gate, allowing the Mountain Hawks to take a 15-10 lead nearly 10 minutes into the game. ASU started just 2-6 from the field and turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. Nine Sun Devils turned the ball over. An 8-2 run over the last 2:40 of the first half gave Lehigh a 32-24 halftime lead.
"I thought our team played like we were lagging in confidence in the first half," said Sendek. "We just didn't have any rhythm and it seemed like we were walling on egg shells. Defensively, we gave up some buckets that we shouldn't have. Our offense with 13 turnovers in the first half just puts you in such a disadvantage."
The revolving door at point guard continued against the Mountain Hawks. Despite Kody Justice starting and Tra Holder coming off the bench first, it was Chance Murray playing 34 minutes in the defeat. The sophomore guard posted a career-high 17 points along with four assists.
Gerry Blakes played just 15 minutes and Justice played just seven. Roosevelt Scott saw just three minutes of action as Sendek was quick on his substitutions in the tight game.
"When guys come in the game or start the game for that matter, it's not a matter of making a mistake, it is a matter of making multiple mistakes in a short period of time," said Sendek. "Or, making mistakes on something that is basic and that we have covered."
Murray was part of the group that led the ASU comeback. After falling behind by 14 points in the second half, Murray, Shaquille McKissic, Jonathan Gilling, Bo Barnes and Goodman fueled the ASU comeback that saw the Sun Devils tied the game 2:01 left on the clock.
Goodman finished the night with a team-high 24 points on 9-11 shooting and 12 rebounds. He showed his ability to get inside and make tough shots. He also showcased an incredible amount of passion and energy. Arizona State could have used more of it.
A back-and-forth final two minutes saw Lehigh take a 64-62 lead on a free throw by Justin Goldsborough. ASU tied the game on a layup from Goodman and had a chance to win the game on the final possession of regulation. However, Murray missed a contested 18-foot jumper as time expired.
Each team struggled offensively in the first overtime, as Lehigh and ASU combined for just eight points in the extra frame. Once again, Murray had the ball in his hands on the final possession with the game tied. And once again Murray was unable to send the Wells Fargo faithful home happy.
ASU took a 71-68 lead in the second overtime, thanks to free throws swished in by Gilling and Murray and ASU led 73-70 with under two minutes left. Lehigh tied the game when guard Austin Price drove the lane, made a contested layup and was fouled by Goodman.
With the Sun Devils leading 75-73, Lehigh point guard Kahron Ross hit a 18-foot jump shot to tie the game at 75 with nine seconds left in the second overtime. The freshman tallied 15 points and 14 assists on 6-13 shooting.
Murray once again took the last shot but could not drain a contested layup. The Sun Devils struggled to get an open look on their final possessions in regulation and overtime, with Murray three times isolating his man and trying to drive with no avail.
"In those situations, almost out of necessity the point guard is going to have the ball in his hands," said Sendek of the final possessions in overtime. "It was probably more of that than anything else. You are unlikely in that situation to have other guys with the ball in their hands."
For the first time since 1981, a triple-overtime game was played at Wells Fargo Arena. In the end, the Sun Devils just lost steam. Lehigh took a 79-78 lead with 2:59 left in the third overtime and never looked back.
Trailing by three points, ASU actually took a decent shot as time expired, but Gilling's three did not find the net. For the first time since January 2, 2014, ASU walked off the court at home defeated.
"I don't have an easy answer for it," said Sendek. "I could call guys out individually and tell them what they weren't doing but that doesn't serve any higher purpose right now. We just have to get better."
The Sun Devils missed 14 of their 29 free throws and they turned the ball over 19 times. With Eric Jacobsen fouling out at the 4:31 mark of the second half, Lehigh outrebounded ASU 48-44.
"We have to hit more foul shots," said Goodman. "We can't keep going to the line and one-for-one, including myself. We just have to finish plays. As a group we have to get more consecutive defensive stops. There are too many times when we have three defensive stops and then we give up two buckets, then we give up a silly foul."
The team has now lost two games in a row for the second time this season. The road does not get any easier with Detroit and Harvard coming to Tempe next week. A Pac-12 opener in Tucson looms in just two weeks. Sendek, is not ready to push the panic button.
"Right now, it is difficult to change much," said Sendek. "We are a team that needs repetition in the basics. We can't push the panic button and come in and try to reinvent the wheel. We have to get better at what we are doing."