Leading 38-31 at the midway mark of the third quarter, the Arizona State Sun Devils appeared primed to close their regular season out with an emphatic win over No. 15 UCLA.
Sophie Brunner was red-hot from the floor, Quinn Dornstauder and Sabrina Haines were each on their way to double-digit scoring efforts and the energy in Wells Fargo Arena for the Sun Devils’ Senior Day was ever-present over the course of the afternoon.
A few minutes later, it had all dissipated.
Outscored by UCLA 18-13 in the final period and outclassed by the Bruins in the waning minutes of the fourth, the Sun Devils dropped its regular season finale 55-52. Despite holding the Bruins nearly 20 points below their scoring average, Arizona State couldn’t muster enough offensive firepower down the stretch to upend the Bruins.
Brunner led all scorers with 20 points while Dornstauder and Haines added 10 and 11 points, respectively.
“The good news is we’re getting better,” head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “We’re getting back to when we had Kelsey (Moos) before she got hurt. These games up to now have gotten away from us a little bit and obviously that one was right there to be taken.”
ASU’s regular season ends with an 18-11 overall record (9-9 in conference) as the Sun Devils head into the Pac-12 Tournament next week in Seattle.
“(I’m) really proud of our effort,” coach Turner Thorne said. “Really disappointing on Senior Day to not get the win but big-picture wise going into March I do think we’re kind of on an upswing and playing our best basketball.”
Ahead 38-31 after a Brunner bucket, the Sun Devils struggled to step on the throats of the Bruins as the third quarter winded down, holding a slim 39-37 lead headed into the final period.
Back-to-back threes from the Bruins surged the visitors ahead 50-45 at the midway mark of the fourth quarter, but Reili Richardson snatched the momentum right back for the Sun Devils. Her three-pointer pulled ASU within 50-49, and her steal on the ensuing UCLA possession led to a pair of Brunner free throws to put ASU ahead 51-50.
Then came the collapse.
Leading 52-50, the Sun Devils sent back-to-back Bruins to the free throw line and held possession of the ball with 42 seconds left down 53-52. Brunner couldn’t get a shot to fall, and forced the Sun Devils into a fouling situation.
UCLA’s Jordin Canada knocked both of her free throws down, but Arizona State still had a chance to send the game to overtime with a three. ASU set a play up for Brunner on the baseline, but UCLA forced her into an awkward shot and the clock hit double zeroes before ASU could get another chance at tying the game.
“There’s not a person you’d rather have with the ball,” coach Turner Thorne said of the final sequence concluding with Brunner’s missed three-pointer. “We needed to get her a better look, we didn’t execute well. She doesn’t always need a clean look, but we needed to get her one.”
The frenetic finish was set up by a first half that saw each team enjoy torrid runs. ASU opened the game on a 6-0 run but the Bruins answered right back with a seven-point swing of their own. The two teams traded buckets throughout the second quarter as ASU forced its way to the free throw line with consistency, taking a 32-27 lead headed into the break.
As the Sun Devils transition from the regular season to postseason play, the play of senior Kelsey Moos will be as important - if not more than - Dornstauder or Brunner’s production come tournament time. Sunday’s game was Moos’ fourth after sitting out seven weeks with a foot injury, and the 32 minutes she played against the Bruins was easily the most time she’s seen since returning to the court.
“I think her foot - she probably wants it amputated right now it’s probably so sore - she just said ‘don’t take me out’ and played through the pain,” coach Turner Thorne said. “I think she’s getting better every day and every game. Ideally I don’t want to play her that much, I don’t think we had quite the lift from the bench that we’ve been getting consistently, so that led to a tightening of the rotation.”
Despite the positive signs stemming from her increased playing time Moos was 0-2 from the field and struggled to make an impact on the offensive side of the court. Headed into the Pac-12 tourney and March Madness, Moos’ continued improvement will serve paramount to ASU’s chances of advancing far.
“She’s not catching-and-shooting as much as we want her to,” coach Turner Thorne said. “I mean, she was our top three-point shooter when she got hurt. She’s passing some things up and totally getting her legs under her. I don’t think she could’ve played that many minutes last week. She couldn’t have.”
Having wrapped up the No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, the Sun Devils have a strong chance of matching up with Arizona in the first round of the tourney with UCLA looming again if the Sun Devils upend the Wildcats. Having split the season series with Arizona and losing both games against the Bruins, another crack at those teams is well within reach.
“It’s not often you get re-dos, so if we get a re-do next week, that’s pretty cool,” coach Turner Thorne said.
When asked what the importance of her senior class - specifically Brunner, Moos and Dornstauder who are in their fourth year as Sun Devils - Turner Thorne was quick to remind that there’s more basketball to be played.
“Their impact from a success standpoint is up there in the record books, but even beyond that they’re just phenomenal young women,” coach Turner Thorne said. “(But), we’re still writing our story.”