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ASU Basketball: UC Riverside beats the Sun Devils on last-second prayer

What a shot

NCAA Basketball: UC Riverside at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It was only fitting that UC Riverside (1-1) won the game on a 3-point shot after drilling 15 of them prior to the game’s final shot. This one, however, was not like the others.

With 1.7 seconds remaining, Riverside’s JP Moorman caught the inbound pass, shook off an overzealous Marcus Bagley, turned and fired a three-quarter court hail mary. As the horn sounded, Moorman’s heave arched through the air on a perfect trajectory and hit nothing but nylon, giving the Highlanders a stunning 66-65 victory Thursday night at Desert Financial Arena.

“It shouldn’t have to come down to that last play,” Bagley said. “Our energy was just flat, we deserved to lose that game. That was the stupidest play of my career probably.”

Bagley’s contest of the final shot perhaps should never have been necessary. Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley indicated that Riverside had three opportunities to make the inbound, and that a deflection should have drained at least half of the 1.7 seconds off the clock.

“They got three chances to do that last play. We deflected the first one which would have effectively ended the game, Gaffney got a tip on it. Then they threw it off the kid’s hands and it went out of bounds, but we didn’t get the clock organized and they kept resetting the game clock, and there you have it,” Hurley said. “The officials told me if I’m angry I should be angry at the scorer’s table for not getting the clock set properly. That was the explanation.”

Lost in the madness of the game’s final play was its penultimate sequence. With six seconds left and the game tied, Luther Muhammad drove the lane and buried a floating runner. That gave Arizona State what looked like a bulletproof two-point lead with 1.7 seconds on the clock.

Muhammad’s bucket was one of only a handful of contested shots made by the Sun Devils in the paint. Despite an overwhelming size advantage, they were unable to get a rhythm and make the necessary run to put away UC Riverside in a back and forth second half.

“One of the focal points was to run them off the line, and we didn’t do that enough,” Bagley said.

There was no lack of energy early, as both teams raced to fast offensive starts in the game’s opening minutes. It was evident from the jump that Riverside had come to play. Two threes apiece from Marcus Bagley and Alonzo Gaffney accounted for ASU’s points from deep, a total that paled in comparison to Riverside’s 3-point production. Of the Highlanders’ 34 first-half points, 30 came from beyond the arch. After making just six triples in its opening game, UCR’s Flynn Cameron and Will Tattersall made it rain from deep in the first half in Tempe. The onslaught made a stingy ASU defense look pedestrian.

“The numbers tell you all you need to know, they were 10-20 at halftime, and 2-15 inside the 3-point line,” Hurley said. “We should have more urgency to close out harder and make a guy make a tough two.”

Much like it did during Tuesday night’s opener, the Arizona State scoring featured a balanced attack in the first half. Bagley led the way with 10 points, while Kimani Lawrence’s eight was supplemented by six from Luther Muhammad and Alonzo Gaffney. Bagley and Lawrence pulled away as the game progressed, finishing far ahead of their teammates in the point tally. Lawrence put up 19 with Bagley’s final line showing 18.

ASU’s size was overwhelming on both sides of the floor. Gaffney, along with seven-footer Enoch Boayke, clogged the paint all night long, holding UC Riverside to four 2-point field goals on the night. Despite the improved three point margin, ASU was unable to pull away. They led for most of the latter half, but never by more than four points.

“A bunch of mental breakdowns just led me to believe that we weren’t ready to play from the jump,” Hurley said. “I don’t think we deserved to win tonight, I told the guys that.”

The perimeter defense was much improved in the second half, with the Highlanders attempting just five threes in the first 15 minutes. A big problem with last year’s Sun Devil squad was its inability to adjust at halftime. Through two games in this young season, the defensive adjustments have improved. UCR didn’t hit a three for the game’s final six minutes, until Moorman hit the mother of all threes to win the game.

“Everyone’s gotta look in the mirror after this,” Hurley said. “What we did in the preseason is not carrying over right now to the games we’re playing. Everyone has a little bit of ownership of this one, it’s disappointing.”