Coming off an intense three-game Pac-12 road stint, the No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils (13-3, 1-3 Pac-12) returned to Tempe with hope that some home cooking would be enough to return “Guard U” to its spot atop the Pac-12.
With the largest home crowd since 2010 on-hand, including former guard and NBA MVP-candidate James Harden and Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, the Sun Devils fell flat, losing to the Oregon Ducks (12-5, 2-2) by a score of 76-72 at Wells Fargo Arena Thursday.
ASU started strong, building a lead as big as 13 points in the first half on the strength of senior guards Kodi Justice and Shannon Evans II, who each finished the first half with 12 points.
With each basket to extend the lead, Harden and the crowd hooted and hollered alongside the Sun Devils, leading to an Oregon timeout with 6:02 remaining in the first half.
Oregon kept the Sun Devils within reach for a couple minutes before senior forward Roman Sorkin and redshirt senior forward MiKyle McIntosh went to work.
The two veteran bigs abused ASU’s inexperienced frontcourt to the tune of 10 points and four rebounds in the final six minutes of the first half, setting the tone and making ASU respect the interior.
McIntosh finished the night with a game-high 13 rebounds, five coming on the offensive end, dominating whoever was in front of him.
“He was all over the glass,” Justice said. “And we couldn’t seem to finish a possession.”
The Ducks closed the first half on a 14-2 run, capped by a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by redshirt senior guard Elijah Brown to tie the game up at 41 going into the locker rooms.
“We definitely felt like we had the game under control,” Justice said. “Then, the next thing you know, it’s halftime and it’s all tied up.”
Things slowed down in the second half and the Sun Devils did not adjust well, as a 5-0 burst between the 13:05 and 12:37 marks was the high point offensively for a majority of the final 20 minutes.
Oregon continued to dominate rebounding on both ends of the floor, winning the battle in the second half, 20-13.
For a team whose identity has been focused around pushing the tempo offensively, being dominated on the interior makes it tough to get into an offensive flow, resulting in quick possessions.
“If we get those rebounds, we have a chance to push,” Hurley said. “We did some good things when we did defensive rebounds, but when we allowed (them) to do that, it wasn’t good for our cause.”
On the other end, ASU could not get offensive rebounds of its own, shortening possessions and keeping the Sun Devils on defense longer.
“They grinded us up on defense,” Justice said. “We were playing 25 seconds on the shot clock, they would miss a shot and get another board.”
For the majority of the second half, the Sun Devils and Ducks were back-and-forth, waiting for either side to make the move to take control. But another killer longball from Brown gave Oregon the lead with 8:30 remaining to ignite a 10-2 run to give the Ducks a lead they would never give up.
The Sun Devils made it close in the final moments, cutting Oregon’s lead to two points on a 3-pointer by Evans, but it was too little, too late for ASU to complete the comeback.
The loss is ASU’s third in four conference games, placing the Sun Devils tied for 10th in the Pac-12 at this point. The Sun Devils next play Oregon State at home on Saturday, a game they will need if they want to restore themselves to where they believe they belong.
“The numbers are what they are in-conference,” Hurley said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us and we’ve got to find ourselves again.”