For a minute of Saturday afternoon’s game against the Arizona Wildcats, it seemed like the impossible might happen.
The Arizona State Sun Devils trailed their seventh-ranked rivals by just a single point at halftime, and with a near-capacity crowd on its feet to start the second stanza, it seemed like a perfect environment for an impending upset.
Then, Shannon Evans II missed badly on the first shot attempt of the second half. Keanu Pinder then put home a wide-open layup on the other end, the first of 10 consecutive points for Arizona coming out of the locker rooms.
The run was all they needed to create some permanent separation, cruising to a 73-60 win that didn’t end up feeling that close.
“The objective in these kinds of games that mean so much to people is to win,” said head coach Bobby Hurley after the defeat. “We didn’t win, and that’s disappointing.”
Junior Kodi Justice led the way in a losing effort for Arizona State (14-17, 7-11 Pac-12) on this day, scoring 17 points before fouling out. Torian Graham - playing in his final game at Wells Fargo Arena - was the only other player to finish in double figures.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life so it’s nice to finally settle in and call this place home,” Graham said. “I had a lot of jitters in the beginning but I tried to focus more on the game than (the fact it was) Senior Day.”
It was the Wildcats (27-4, 16-2) that scored the first five points of the day, but some stingy defense allowed the Sun Devils to keep within striking distance while its offense took time to settle in. Arizona State would eventually fight all the way back to grab their first lead of the game with just under four minutes remaining, taking a 26-25 lead on a three-pointer from Torian Graham.
The lead then exchanged hands three more times in the half’s final three minutes and change, with the visitors from Tucson eventually taking a 30-29 advantage into the break.
“I thought we could have had a lead at the half if we had executed our free throw shooting and made a few extra shots,” said Hurley. “We were getting stops, we just couldn’t get over the hump to get a little cushion.”
As Hurley and company would learn soon thereafter, the lack of a cushion would come back to bite them. That 10-0 run to start the second half put Arizona up 40-29 with 17 minutes to play, and the home team would never get closer than within eight in those final 17 minutes.
Their best chance to cut into the lead came when Graham buried a deep three-pointer with eight minutes to play, making the score 55-47.
The triple was answered immediately on the other end by point guard Allonzo Trier, however, and a slam dunk by Lauri Markkanen extended the Wildcat lead to 13. That seemed to be the sequence to put the Sun Devils to bed for good, and an even final six minutes made the final score 73-60.
“If you told me we would have kept them around 70 points, I would have thought we had a good chance to win,” Justice said. “I feel like if we had come out with our ‘A’ game on offense, we could have won this game.”
Unfortunately for the Maroon and Gold, a perfect game is required to beat a team like Arizona. 20 good minutes won’t do, especially in a year when the Wildcats are as deep and talented as this.
So Arizona State is still looking for its first win against its arch-rival in the Hurley era. But if this afternoon’s first half is any indication, that day isn’t too far off.