Kodi Justice raised three fingers in the air, banging his hand against his head, as he rushed down the court to get back on defense.
It was a glimpse of Justice’s celebration within a personal 9-0 scoring spree that sparked a 23-6 run to put the Sun Devils back in it, down 39-38 at halftime.
That comeback couldn’t induce a win, though.
“Last time I was in here, we were talking about UCLA and how we got off to a fast start,” Justice said. “To be able to exert that much energy to fight all the way back — I mean, that’s why we came up short.”
The No. 25 Arizona State Sun Devils (19-7, 7-7 Pac-12) fell 77-70 to No. 17 Arizona (21-6, 11-3) before a crowd of 14,233 in Tempe on Thursday evening.
Maybe it was because the Sun Devils were outscored 21-7 at the free throw line. Or they let Deandre Ayton parade around the basket, scoring 25 points and 16 rebounds. Maybe it’s because ASU started the game down 33-15.
“I think I covered everything, maybe,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said after his 2-minute introduction. “There might be something else someone wanted to ask.”
He then added: “I thought we emptied the tank, though. We really did.”
To come from behind down 18 points, win the turnover margin 20-14 and especially, to beat Arizona in the paint, 40-30, Hurley said he thought he’d meet the media with a smile on his face.
The Sun Devils were locked at a 50-50 tie with about 10 minutes to go. Then, tied 63-63 with 3:48 left to play. It was in the final moments when everything unraveled.
Arizona’s 7-foot forward Dusan Ristic missed a jumper that he rebounded himself. He then proceeded to miss another shot — this time a layup — before 7-foot Ayton tipped it in.
ASU failed to score. Allonzo Trier then knocked in a 3, which was followed by an Ayton dunk a possession later. Arizona took a 70-63 lead that the Sun Devils couldn’t overcome.
“They had nine offensive rebounds in the second half, and I think he (Ayton) had pretty much all of them,” Justice said. “With that, we struggled. And he shot and missed, he was putting it back before we were in foul trouble.”
Ayton had seven of Arizona’s 12 offensive rebounds, but it was Arizona’s height differential that came in handy in the final moments.
Among Arizona’s starters, its average height is 6-7. ASU’s: 6-4.
“He may be the best big I’ve seen in college as a player and as a coach,” Hurley said. “He doesn’t get that tired either. We had him on the perimeter, running him around on ball screens and think it might be easier for guards to go by, but he holds his own under the basket on defense.”
Mickey Mitchell fouled out, De’Quon Lake had four fouls with seven minutes to play and Romello White had four with 11 minutes left.
That was the difference.
Arizona State’s GuardU caliber club shot 32 percent from 3 in a loss to Arizona on Dec. 30 and lost by six. The Sun Devils shot 28 percent on Thursday, losing by seven.
In the middle of a cluttered Pac-12 conference, the ninth-placed Sun Devils sit a game behind fourth-placed Utah. In its final four games, ASU travels to the Oregon schools before finishing off at home against Stanford and California.