ASU’s 80-78 win had all the markings of what has become a typical game between these teams over the last two seasons.
The Sun Devils and Trojans have squared off three times in each of the last two season. All three have followed a very close script, but with players cast in various roles.
Thursday, the role of main Tormenter, previously played by senior guard Elijah Stewart and junior forward Bennie Boatwright, belonged to sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic. In 24 minutes, he made all six of hit shots from the field and nailed seven of 10 from the free throw line to lead the Trojans with 19 points.
Behind that tormentor, the Trojans built momentum, stifling Sun Devil comeback attempts with domination and key scoring from Sidekicks, such as the aforementioned Boatwright and junior forward Chimezie Metu, who finished with 18 and 13 points, respectively.
Just like in previous iterations of the matchup, USC appeared to have total control with under four minutes remaining, seemingly ready to cruise to a win.
Then, like they always do, the Sun Devils responded.
From the time of USC’s maximum lead with under four minutes remaining through the end of the game, the Sun Devils outscored the Trojans by 11 points, resulting in a three-point loss, a one-point win and a two-point win Thursday.
Taking advantage of Trojan miscues, the Sun Devils battled back with shots from the co-starring guards in seniors Kodi Justice and Shannon Evans II and freshman Remy Martin.
But, like in the home win a season ago, senior guard Tra Holder was cast as the Hero.
Last year, Holder sank two free throws with seven seconds left to lift the Sun Devils. Thursday, it came a tad harder.
After Boatwright missed a 3 that would have essentially iced the game, Holder began to trot upcourt toward the halfcourt stripe. The Sun Devils had a timeout left, but he wanted to keep it that way.
“I mean I didn’t want (Hurley) to (call timeout), but I think the momentum of the game helped us I feel like it changed the impact,” Holder said. “I feel like if Shannon hadn’t hit that big shot he would’ve called a timeout.”
With 25 seconds left, Holder crossed midcourt, waiting. He lurked outside the 3-point arc for about 20 seconds before making his move. He darted inside, taking on Metu. Holder brushed Metu off, letting him run by and nailed a jumpshot with under two seconds remaining.
“I think he was just playing with the momentum and it worked out,” Holder said. “And I was just blessed.”
Hurley has seen his team make the most of similar situations, but there was no room for error from the Sun Devils Thursday.
“You have to become more perfect in that situation, with that deficit,” Hurley said.
Against the Trojans, the Sun Devils do just that.