The effort was certainly there.
Despite having its five starters play all but one minute of Thursday night’s game, the Arizona State Sun Devils gave the big, bad, fifth-ranked UCLA Bruins all they could handle before eventually falling, 87-75.
And while the players involved came short of calling the performance a moral victory, there’s no denying the fact that the outing was a step in the right direction for a growing program like Arizona State’s.
“We battled the whole time,” said Kodi Justice after the loss. “I wouldn’t trade the five we had out on the court for anybody.”
Justice was the only one of the five to get a brief reprieve on Thursday, sitting for one minute while forward Ramon Vila took his place on the floor. That substitution came with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game, meaning the Sun Devils went nearly 27 minutes without making a change.
“I rarely came out of a game (while playing), so maybe that’s where I got that thought from” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “At one point we were going to go to the bench in the first half but no one wanted to come out. Those guys were warriors.”
Those guys scrapped and fought valiantly against a much bigger and more talented opponent, always keeping the lead within reach until the game’s final minutes.
A little 5-1 run actually gave Arizona State a 14-10 advantage early on, which marked the home team’s biggest lead of the night. UCLA would eventually settle in and take a nine-point lead into the locker rooms, but a tremendous effort to start the second stanza got the Sun Devils right back into the game.
“We didn’t back down,” said Hurley. “I loved how we came out of the locker room to start the second half.”
Just like they have in nearly every game this season, a barrage of three-point attempts (and makes) allowed the Maroon and Gold to stay within striking distance.
The team finished with 14 three-pointers, half of which were made by shooting guard Torian Graham. The Buffalo transfer finished the night leading all scorers with 28 points.
“They’re going to score,” said Bruins head coach Steve Alford. When they play four guards, you’re not seeing much of any post game. So it was hard on our bigs to guard the three-point line.”
Ultimately, the combination of relying on its touch from outside and the lack of a big man to combat forwards TJ Leaf and Ike Anigbogu cost Arizona State in this one.
The absence of big men (and depth) is a bad hand this Sun Devil team has been dealt, which is why this group has had to take the positives from some of their losses and simply move on.
Those results aren’t necessarily moral victories, but can signify growth while also resulting in another notch in the loss column. And at this point in the season, when the only chance the Maroon and Gold have at making the postseason is by winning the Pac-12 Tournament, even the ultra-competitive Hurley can come to terms with that final outcome.
“It’s never a great feeling to lose, but I respected the effort from our team,” Hurley said. “I thought we hung in there the best we could. It’s tough to be upset with how much energy they expended tonight.”
With just two games now remaining in the regular season, the energy and effort will surely be there as the team closes its campaign against another pair of favored opponents in USC and Arizona.
And while they might not be on top when the final buzzer sounds, Sun Devil fans can take solace in the fact that there are favorable signs pointing to the future.