TUCSON, Ariz. — The old adage goes: It’s not about how you start, but how you finish.
For the Arizona State Sun Devils, throughout the season it often has been about their start, which either tasks them with a profitable advantage or an early deficit.
A poor start doomed the Sun Devils (9-9, 2-3 Pac-12) during their 91-75 defeat to the No. 16 Arizona Wildcats on Thursday. In a raucous McKale Center environment housing 14,644 fans, the Sun Devils’ disadvantage proved too much for Bobby Hurley’s unit to overcome.
“You always wanna (start better) on the road,” Hurley said, “no matter where you’re playing.”
This was especially true tonight.
The Wildcats (17-2, 5-0) scored the game’s first 12 points, bullying their way to a 20-8 lead amidst out-rebounding the Sun Devils 10-0 through the opening minutes.
ASU was able to bring the deficit under 10 points, but Arizona freshman forward Lauri Markkanen, who scored a game-high 30 points, keyed a sequence which was the turning point of the matchup.
The 7-foot Finish product made three straight 3-point attempts on successive possessions, and guard Rawle Alkins added another to extend the Wildcats’ lead to 34-14.
“The 3 (Markkanen) hit on the left wing really got him going, and he got two more before we could get the timeout,” Hurley said. “Those plays that he made were vital, critical plays in terms of stretching out their advantage.”
Not much later, Hurley’s group was in a 24-point hole before entering the break trailing 45-25.
The Sun Devils were out-rebounded 21-9 and shot 0-for-9 from 3-point range — marking the first time this year ASU has been shut out for an entire period from deep. The Wildcats made 5 of their 9 attempts through the first frame.
However, despite being physically outmatched and facing a large deficit, the Sun Devils found a way to fight back.
After struggling from outside in the first half, ASU connected on 10 of 18 3s in the second, making 5 of their first 7 to draw within 13.
Said Hurley of the initial second-half output: “We were draining them.”
“That’s what gave us a chance,” the second-year coach said. “We’re not a team that can survive an opponent like this when we’re coming into the half with 25 points.
“We needed to shoot better,” he added. “We didn’t, but I appreciate and respect how our team competed and played in the second half. It easily could’ve gotten away from us.”
It was the closest the Sun Devils would come.
ASU eventually cooled off from deep, and Arizona’s consistent and efficient shooting, both from the field and at the free-throw line, proved enough for the Wildcats to stave off any potential comeback attempts.
“We cut it to 13... We were knocking on the door (by) getting it under 10, we just couldn’t make enough plays,” Hurley said.
The Wildcats pulled away, out-rebounding the Sun Devils 38-22, and outshooting them from the field, 56.7-47.4 percent. ASU finished 10 of 27 from 3-point territory, with all of their made triples coming in the second half.
Arizona’s student section, coined “The ZonaZoo”, harassed Hurley and his players the entire night. Hurley’s name was mockingly echoed by the group throughout the night, achieving peak decibel when he drew a technical foul during the second half.
“That’s a different type of environment there,” ASU starting point guard Tra Holder said of the atmosphere. “Something that we haven’t really played against this season besides San Diego State, so it took us some time to get our feet wet.”
Hurley says that it can’t take his team as long as it did to find its way, particularly against a team of Arizona’s caliber.
“You hope that you just get your feet under you in the game,” he said. “So to have that deficit, you try to flip it in the huddle and say, ‘Hey, this is what we gotta do the whole game. We’ve gotta fight the whole game. We’ve gotta climb back into it. And we did, we just never got it to a margin that we could put any significant game pressure on Arizona.”
Hurley acknowledges it’s about execution for his squad moving forward.
“It wasn’t an effort thing, it was more of an execution thing,” he said of the defeat. “Our guys have a lot of character, a lot of heart to stay in the game.”