By most metrics, everything fell right for the No. 25 Arizona State Sun Devils Thursday. Senior guard Kodi Justice finished with 19 points and they won the scoring battle in the paint.
“If you’d have told me coming in here that Kodi had the game that he had and that we won the paint 40-30,” coach Bobby Hurley said. “I figure I’d come in here with a big smile on my face. But that’s not the case.”
No, it was not. Hurley’s Sun Devils (19-7, 7-7 Pac-12) had their three-game win streak snapped, falling to the No. 17 Arizona Wildcats 77-70 at Wells Fargo Arena. Because what those numbers don’t account for is all the havoc caused when two 7-footers are on their game.
Freshman center DeAndre Ayton and senior center Dusan Ristic caused problems for all five of ASU’s forwards for all 40 minutes. Their pure size and strength forced fouls by overmatched defenders, which caused problems as the night wore on.
In the first half, ASU was able to contain both Ayton and Ristic reasonably well as the two bullies on the block combined for 16 points and six rebounds while turning the ball over six times.
But whistles were aplenty in the second period, mostly in favor of the Wildcats and against Sun Devil forwards, making lineups an issue for Hurley.
Against the mishmashed groupings, the Wildcat bigs feasted.
Ayton went over 20 minutes without a field goal between the 14:45 mark of the first half and the 13:56 mark of the second half.
But when he got going again, he really got going.
The potential top pick in June’s NBA Draft secured a double-double in the second half alone, soaring over the shorter Sun Devils for 17 points and 14 assists. He was efficient, too, making eight of his 12 field goal attempts and earning the praise of the opposing coach.
“He may be the best big that I’ve seen in college as a player and as a coach,” Hurley said. “He’s just scratching the surface of what he’ll be. It’s hard to imagine what he’ll be.”
While the Wildcats didn’t see the bonus until 40 seconds remained in the game, the Sun Devils committed their seventh foul with nearly 11 minutes still on the clock, sending Arizona to the line 18 times in that span. Ayton made seven of his 10 attempts and his teammates didn’t miss.
Without that assistance, the Sun Devils went to the line just six times, but could not convert. Senior guard Tra Holder made just one of his four attempts and freshman guard Remy Martin missed both of his, keeping ASU from making up any ground.
Ayton tallied four assists, as well, expertly passing out of double teams. His final one came on the game-sealing 3-pointer by junior guard Allonzo Trier that gave Arizona a 68-63 lead.
“He’s 7-foot-1, he can see over anyone,” Justice said. “We are trapping with guys 6-foot-5, 6-foot-4, so he could see right over us.”
Ayton and Ristic’s nights become the sixth and seventh times a player listed a 7-foot or taller reached double digits against ASU. No matter how talented they are or how well the Sun Devils play, it seems all it takes is a post scorer to knock them off.