Coming off two straight losses in conference play, the Arizona State Sun Devils looked to get back on track against UCLA after a squandered comeback that saw them lose to USC on Thursday.
Instead, they only found another squandered comeback, this one possibly more painful than the last.
The Bruins hosted the Sun Devils on Saturday having just defeated Arizona with a last-second three to grab hold of their first win in conference play. This one ended with two, last-minute threes to put the Sun Devils away, 81-74, for their second straight conference heartbreak.
The teams traded buckets over the first ten minutes of the half. UCLA center Tony Parker was the clear marauder on defense with back-to-back blocks at the rim to inject the momentum into his team and send the Bruins on their first run of the game.
The Bruins scored nine unanswered points made possible by several sloppy ASU turnovers (which contributed to the nine at half) that saw UCLA pull ahead 21-12. ASU forward Obinna Oleka ended the run on an outside shot that jumpstarted the lackadaisical ASU offense.
The Sun Devils lost the battle on the offensive glass in the first half 7-2 and couldn't make a perimeter shot at all, but UCLA insistence in staying in man defense and not forcing ASU outside kept the Sun Devils in the game.
With UCLA after it on defense — winning lose balls and coming up with big blocks — ASU began to weaken the deficit and worked the inside to dig for easy baskets and draw fouls for the and-one's.
Despite continuing to struggle from the perimeter, ASU was graced with the fact that two of UCLA's bigs — Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker — had two fouls on them and were forced to play conservatively. ASU shooting guard Gerry Blakes finally drained one from behind the arc to cut the ASU defecit back to single digits and from then on it was a team effort by the Sun Devils to knot the game back up 33-33 on a Tra Holder three with a minute left in the half.
Seconds later, Holder again came away with a stop-and-pop on a breakaway.
Despite having been down 12 and looking as if they were in danger of letting the game get away from them, the Sun Devils scooted into half down only one at 38-37 and with Holder leading his team with 11 points.
In the second half, ASU continued feeding the hot hand in Holder who was molten hot in the second half and quickly collected his fourth straight contest with 20+ points.
Both Welsh and ASU center Eric Jacobsen collected their fourth fouls with ten minutes left to play, but the Sun Devils continued to struggle defending the UCLA bigs inside with their overwhelming height advantage.
Both teams went on runs that were set up by the defense and were punctuated with turnovers that allowed the lead to change 12 times throughout the matchup and 10 times in the second half.
Four UCLA Bruins ended in double digits — guard Isaac Hamilton with 26, star shooter Bryce Alford with 18, guard Aaron Holiday with 10 and Welsh with 12.
Only two Sun Devils collected double digits on the night and both were clutch from behind the arc in the second half. Holder, who ended with 26 points and sank one from the corner to tie it up with under four to play and guard Kodi Justice, who came away with 11 points, and draining one from way out to knot the game at 74 with 1:46 left.
However, the Bruins kept producing big stops when it mattered most, and in the final minute of the game it was the hot hand of both Hamilton and Alford that were just too much for the Sun Devils to handle. A second-chance opportunity created by Welsh and dished out to Holiday at the top of the arc put the Bruins out front for good, with another three from Alford to put the nail in ASU's coffin.
The Sun Devils are still in pursuit of their first conference win and will take on Washington State Thursday in Tempe at Wells Fargo Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. MST and will be broadcasted on the Pac-12 Networks.