To the Arizona State Sun Devils basketball coach Bobby Hurley, it was simply unexplainable.
How a team that appeared on a path to a much needed victory could ignore, wittingly or unwittingly, a core tenet of basketball was to Hurley, simply baffling. And yet, as he stared at the stat sheet following ASU’s (19-11, 10-7 Pac-12) crushing 90-83 loss to the Washington Huskies (14-16, 4-13), the two-time national champion was forced to try and make sense of that exact reality, dissecting the portion of Thursday’s game that he felt delivered his Sun Devils their third straight loss.
“We went through a stretch, once we got up 61-49, that we stopped running back on defense if there was something that happened on offense that wasn’t good,” Hurley said. “That was a big part of the game, just that one stretch where we did not run back hard on defense. That’s hard to explain why you would choose to do that when you’ve done a lot of things well, not only in this game but throughout the season.”
Explain it though he must, or at least try, as ASU works to salvage their end to the regular season. Just one week ago, the idea that this season would need salvaging would be ludicrous, as a seven game win streak had shot the Sun Devils into first place in the Pac-12. Even following a disappointing trip to Los Angeles that saw ASU fall by three to UCLA and by ten to USC, spirits still ran high as a bye in the conference tournament and a trip to the NCAA tournament seemed all but assured.
Now though, following Thursday’s loss, ASU’s position appears much more perilous as they enter Saturday’s season finale against Washington State with likely a bye, and possibly a tournament appearance, on the line.
“Our defense has not been what it was prior to us going to LA,” Hurley said. “We gave up 50% (shooting from the field) and 11 threes, so we didn’t guard (Washington) in two or three. It just made life really difficult on us and that was the story of the game.”
ASU’s defensive lapses defined Thursday’s contest, as the Sun Devils allowed the last-place Huskies to shoot 58% from the field, 63% from three, in the second half. Washington used a number of runs in the second half, most notably a 20-4 run that began at the exact point Hurley mentioned the team stopped running back, to collect just their fourth conference victory and their fourteenth victory overall.
“We just need to stay a little more disciplined and solid at certain points. I think that when we do play good defense and they still hit a good shot, we still need to stay disciplined,” junior guard Remy Martin explained. “We’ve just got to stay with it through the whole time.”
Thursday was far from ASU’s strongest performance offensively, as the Sun Devils shot at just a 41% clip from the field and 36% from three. While a handful of Sun Devils thrived against the Huskies signature zone defense, particularly redshirt senior guard Rob Edwards who finished with 23 points on 9-16 shooting including 5-11 shooting from three, a number of notable Sun Devils did not.
Most jarring were the struggles of Martin, who came into Thursday’s contest averaging a team best 19.6 points per game including 30-point and 22-point efforts just last week against UCLA and USC respectively. Thursday though was a drastically different story, as the junior finished the game with just six points while going 2-14 from the field and 1-10 from three.
“It just wasn’t my night,” Martin said. “I don’t think I have too many nights like this, but when I do, it kind of stings just because I’ve put so much work into it.”
When asked about his star guard’s poor play, Hurley explained the unique challenges of Washington’s defense like only a fellow point guard could. The NCAA’s all-time leader in assists was also quick to point out the difficultly of staying poised and confident when things are simply not going your way, all while reaffirming his confidence in Martin.
“This defense in particular I think is not built for him, because of the size and the quickness of their four guys that kind of set up a wall out there,” Hurley said of Martin. “So it’s hard for him to penetrate, hard for him to get a clean look from three. I thought he had a couple of pretty good looks, a momentum one on the left wing that didn’t go down, but it’s one of those situations where as a player.
“I think with him he knows he’s not going to get many open ones the way they were guarding him, so you put more pressure on yourself to make that shot. He’ll get it straight, Remy will. I’m not worried about him.”
Martin was not the only consistent Sun Devil contributor to struggle Thursday, as low post stalwart Romello White was unusually quiet in the loss registering just nine points on 2-9 shooting and five rebounds.
ASU has had trouble as of late getting the big man involved in the offense, often failing to recognize when the redshirt junior has a mismatch down low. Predictably, the struggles have followed, as both Martin and Hurley harped postgame on the importance of incorporating White in the offense early and often.
“We could have done a better job of getting Romello the ball down low, being more aggressive,” Martin said.
“I don’t think Romello got the ball enough in the second half,” Hurley said. “I’m going to have to look at the film, but I think he should have probably gotten more touches.”
Up next for ASU is their final regular season matchup of the year, a duel with a Washington State Cougar team fresh off a 21-point loss to the Arizona Wildcats. With a potential NCAA tournament bid hanging in the balance, Hurley is the first to acknowledge the importance of righting the ship with just a few days remaining before the Pac-12 tournament begins.
“There’s no more times for moral victories. We’ve got to fix our defense,” Hurley said. “At home, you’ve got to win these type of games this time of year. You can’t afford to lose these kind of games.”