While everyone else stood and watched Torian Graham’s 3-pointer sail to the basket and ricochet off the rim, Arizona State junior guard Tra Holder was on the move. The 6-foot-1 Holder snagged the offensive rebound and was fouled on the putback attempt with 1.9 seconds left.
Two converted free throws later, and ASU (9-7) walked out of Wells Fargo Arena with a 78-77 win over Colorado and a 2-1 record in Pac-12 play.
Afterward, Holder said it was just good luck.
“At the end of games, I just try to crash the boards and get extra opportunities for us,” Holder said. “It just popped in my hands, to be honest. I just tried to throw it up.”
However, redshirt junior guard Shannon Evans pumped up his teammate’s clutch hustle-play to win the game.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Evans said.
Holder’s game-winning free throws were just his 10th and 11th points of the night. In fact, he struggled mightily from the field, shooting just 3-for-14 from the field (1-for-5 from 3), and Holder said a season ago, he might’ve not put himself in that situation to make that type of play.
“I just know that last year, when I didn’t have a good game, I brought myself down,” Holder said. “I probably brought the energy of the team down because I know they look to the guards. This time, I tried to stay and bring energy, keep complimenting the team and just bring energy overall.”
Stepping up in spite of difficult circumstances seemed to be the overarching theme in ASU’s win. The first bit of major adversity came with 1:27 left in the first half. A skirmish occurred after a hard foul on Colorado forward and leading-scorer Xavier Johnson from ASU freshman center Jethro Tshisumpa.
After referees reviewed the play for more than four minutes, both Johnson and Tshisumpa were ejected. At the time, Johnson was 6-for-7 from the field with 13 points. Tshisumpa had played one of his better games with three blocks and zero fouls in five minutes. With ASU freshman big-man Andre Adams out with knee tendinitis, the Sun Devils were down to seven scholarship players.
“You never like to see anything like that, but it’s a very physical game,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “Guys are going extremely hard.”
The already undersized and undermanned Sun Devils became more so after freshman center Ramon Vila fouled out with 5:37 remaining in the game, his team up by just one point.
“I mean sometimes, you don’t have a bunch of guys,” Hurley said. “You need the right guys. I think right now, we have the right guys. All eight guys that are playing at this point, I have confidence in them. I trust them.”
Despite only having six scholarship players available down the stretch, the Sun Devils continued to hit the glass and were only outrebounded by four.
An up-and-down first 10 minutes in the second half gave way to a back-and-forth finish as teams traded tough baskets and hard fouls. In the last 10 minutes of the game, the lead was changed 14 times.
Evans said he told his team to “find an excuse to win” after he said they did not have that same fight in its loss to California only four days ago. Hurley added on that, mentioning that he was “excited” to see ASU play the way it did down the stretch.
“When you go to the well like we went to the well, we were invested in this game,” Hurley said. “Emotionally invested, played our hearts out, you like to come out on the right side of it just for the morale of the team.”
Across the board, the Sun Devils featured several important contributors. Senior forward Obinna Oleka racked up another double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds). Graham had a couple important defensive possessions against Colorado’s Derrick White, who finished with 35 points (10 of 20 shooting), five rebounds and five assists.
And while ASU needed every bit it could get from everyone who played, Hurley couldn’t take any credit away from his point guard who made the winning play, despite a subpar performance.
“Everyone will point to the play that Tra made,” Hurley said. “it was a terrific individual play. Great awareness, and for him to go to the glass like that, and then step up to the free throw line with that type of pressure to make two is not easy. Very proud of him.”
The Sun Devils will need Holder and company to dig deep once again as it has a quick turnaround for a 3 p.m. matchup against Utah on Saturday, Jan. 7.