Missed free throws, missed three’s, quick possessions and a struggle down the stretch of the game. It was all a part of Arizona State’s (9-4, 0-1 Pac-12) conference home opening loss at Wells Fargo Arena against the Utah Utes (7-6, 1-0 Pac-12).
The Devils, who fell 96-86, got off to an ideal start through the first 10 minutes. They led by 17 points at one point, then the tables turned.
Quick transition points and an inability to get back on defense spurred the Utes back into the game. At half, Utah trailed by only four points.
“There was no transition defense,” head coach Bobby Hurley said. “I haven’t seen us play like this in that department of what we have been doing defensively all season. That was an issue, a big issue. I think sometimes it goes hand in hand with shot selection when you don’t take good shots.”
Fueling ASU’s hot start in the first 10 minutes was sophomore guard Remy Martin. Martin had 14 points at the half, and he proved to be a reliable offensive presence with his ability to hit mid-range jump shots. Utah also gifted the Sun Devils nine turnovers that ASU took advantage of.
However, that offensive reliability for ASU only dwindled as the game wore on, and after the hot start, things only continued to roll downhill.
The numbers speak for themselves.
ASU was out rebounded 38-34, and they were outscored in fast break points 19-11. And perhaps the most discouraging number was left at the free throw line, where the Devils were just 60 percent (15-25) at the line.
It was a puzzling performance, and all of what the team had built in the first part of the game slowly flipped the other way.
What was once a 17-point ASU lead turned into a 10-point Utah lead midway through the second half. Part of the reason for this was Utah’s ability to hit the long ball. The Utes were 16-30 from beyond the arc.
Junior guard Sedrick Barefield, sophomore guard Donnie Tillman, freshman forward Timmy Allen and senior guard Parker Van Dyke combined for 76 points, and Barefield led the way down the stretch as he made a variety of dazzling moves to beat the ASU defense.
“Barefield was the best player on the floor. It wasn’t even close,” Hurley said. “Just with all the shot-making, and the variety of shot-making. The drives, the three’s. He had a really good game for them.”
The Sun Devils cut into the lead multiple times, but it was never enough. With Utah’s ability to spread the floor and Barefield’s leadership, the Devils couldn’t muster their way back.
Hurley felt the team struggled most on the defensive side of the floor, leading to struggles on offense. On the offensive side of the floor, where ASU struggled the most was with quick possessions that had no meaning. There were a variety of instances with quick threes and rushed shots, and the missed opportunities opened a door for Utah to claw back.
“It was just multiple possessions, multiple offenders of just quick shots or ill-advised shots, and a collective breakdown of not getting back on defense,” Hurley said. “It led to layups, it led to threes, and then all of a sudden, you have a lead that was 17 and it’s under doubles. It’s fragile. You can’t do that stuff. When you have a team down, especially at home, you got to give them no hope and we let them back in.”
Utah out scored ASU 57-43 in the second half. It was a downturn that continued to spiral. For the second consecutive year, ASU began conference play with a loss.
“It feels like last year. It feels like Groundhog Day,” Hurley said. “Just quality wins (in non-conference). You come back from Christmas after feeling so good and was pretty special, and we are not that same team. We have to figure out why we are not.”
So, is it time to hit the panic button?
Losing four of its last six games, including two winnable games at home, ASU has some question marks surrounding the team’s descent into conference play. The Devils scraped by two formidable opponents in No. 5 Kansas and Georgia, but bad losses to Utah and Princeton could leave some fans sitting on edge.
Sophomore forward Kimani Lawrence did not score on Thursday, and freshman guard Luguentz Dort, who started his freshman campaign on fire, has faced some adversity as of late. He registered 14 points against the Utes, but in his last four games, he is shooting under 25 percent (12-49) from the field.
The topsy-turvy season can leave people wondering, what is the identity of this year’s team?
One loss in conference play does not define a season, but on paper, ASU should have the firepower at home to handle both Princeton and Utah. Now it’s up to Hurley and his regime to try and avenge Thursday’s loss in a hurry. ASU is back in action this Saturday against Colorado, and although it’s early, the game can be illustrated as an early season look in the mirror.
“It’s do or die to me...My question that I ask my guys was ‘What do we want to do with this season?’” ASU redshirt senior forward Zylan Cheatham said. “Do we want beating Kansas and winning our Vegas Tournament and all of that to be the highlight of our season, or do we want to buckle down and make something of it, and make history, go to the tournament and do something? That’s pretty much the question we got to ask at this point. I am pretty sure we will find out the answer soon in these next few games.”