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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils frustrated by Cal’s zone in loss

The Sun Devils struggled to get anything going on offense against the Golden Bears.

NCAA Basketball: California at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Defense doesn’t just win championships — it wins regular season matchups, too. And when an opponent cannot crack the defensive lock mastercode as the Arizona State Sun Devils were unable to on Wednesday night against the California Golden Bears, the results aren’t usually pretty.

“It was tough,” ASU junior guard Kodi Justice said of Cal’s defense. “They were long, they were athletic — We missed shots.”

The Golden Bears tout eight players listed at 6-foot-6 or taller; the Sun Devils have four, and the disparity was rather obvious throughout the contest on both sides of the ball.

“I think that their length and their size and the zone right out the gate bothered us on offense,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “We were dribbling around a little bit, and not moving the ball well enough, not getting into gaps.”

The Sun Devils have faced several other opponents this year employing a 2-3 zone defensive scheme and found success. Against the Golden Bears however, the Maroon & Gold couldn’t get anything going, and it resulted in their worst offensive showing of the year.

In their first matchup of the season, Cal needed a last-minute run of fire from deep to pull away from a hot-shooting ASU late. This time, the Sun Devils offense was stymied, struggling to cope against the Golden Bears’ zone.

“They zoned us the whole game,” Justice said. “Last time we played Cal, they manned us the whole game with the two bigs, so we got to attack, got Ivan Rabb in foul trouble early. This game they zoned us the entire game, and we couldn’t figure out how to break it.”

The Sun Devils made only 15 of their 59 shot attempts, a season-low of 24.1 percent. They combined to make just three of their 25 3-pointers; the nine-percent mark is also the lowest of the season.

A victory would have given ASU a flicker of hope in contending in a top-heavy conference race. Instead, the Sun Devils just couldn’t channel the form the appeared to have found during their latest road trip.

“Our performance was embarrassing,” Justice said.

“You would think based on how we played offense most the year, we’d be in pretty good shape,” Hurley said. “Just one of those nights that we’ve had this year that where if we’re shooting the ball the way we’re shooting it, then we’re gonna have a hard time being real competitive.”

That’s not to say the Sun Devils were out of it from the get-go. Hurley’s unit forced the Golden Bears into 11 turnovers, and with 6:27 left in the first half tied the game at 17 amidst a 13-6 run. The breakthrough was ensued by an 11-0 run by the Golden Bears to jump out to a 28-17 halftime lead they never looked back from.

Justice, who finished with nine points, said the Sun Devils took shots they liked — regardless of how difficult they may have appeared — they were simply unable to hit them.

“If you would’ve told me they only scored 28 points at halftime, I’d be like, ‘We have a pretty good chance to win this game,’” he said.

Cold shooting kept ASU from making it very competitive following the intermission. The lackluster night was no better characterized than by Torian Graham’s stat line. The senior guard entered the contest averaging 18.5 points per game on 45.9-percent shooting; against the Cal, he went 1-for-14, finishing with a season-low two points.

“We didn’t, as coaches, put together a good enough plan to work against that so we can find more success on offense,” Hurley said. “It was just kinda dribble, dribble, dribble, try and go, and then just… miss. It just came down to that fairly regularly tonight.”

The Sun Devils will hope to find their form against the Stanford Cardinal, who visit on Saturday in a game which could be a revealing gauge as to how ASU will conclude its second regular season under Hurley.