For 30 minutes in Tucson on Saturday afternoon, an overmatched Arizona State men’s basketball team boxed No. 3 Arizona into the Sun Devils’ style of basketball.
It’s a primal way to play the game. Elbows out, bodies flying and intense pressure. Completely unpolished and entirely admirable. It’s guerrilla-style tactics played out on a 94-foot-long hardwood court.
And for 30 minutes, Arizona was in serious danger of succumbing to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the rivalry. For a team that has been so dominant at scoring inside all season, the Wildcats struggled to find anything easy as the Sun Devils padlocked the paint.
In the last 10 minutes, it was a different story. All of a sudden, the philosophy of the Wildcats changed. They got ugly, played the Sun Devils style, and beat them at it. The last 10 minutes belonged to the Wildcats in the way many expected all 40 minutes would prior to Saturday, and it resulted in a 67-56 loss for the Sun Devils.
There are two prisms to view this game through for the Sun Devils, and both can display pictures that are equal parts correct.
The first is how hard Arizona State (6-12, 2-6 Pac-12) competed against their superior rival Arizona (17-2, 7-1). It was a classic rock fight at the McKale Center, and Arizona State has thrived this year in such circumstances.
They pushed Arizona to a place they have rarely had to go this season, and the Wildcats should be fortunate this game was not held 100 miles north in Tempe.
The second is how maddening this team can be when their potential was on full display. In the first half, the Sun Devils built a 28-20 lead and spun the volume down in the arena several decibels.
Yes, the Wildcats played themselves into a win with great defense and enough shot-making in the second half, but the Sun Devils also played themselves into a loss with 17 turnovers and 23 personal fouls.
This game was somehow unlike any other this season for Arizona State, and at the same time exactly like every other. One of college basketball’s best shooters, DJ Horne once again lit up an opposing defense from behind the arc on his way to a team-high 17 points. This time, with the game broadcast on CBS, the Sun Devils first network television game of the season, it was for the nation to see.
After Horne hit his fifth 3-pointer of the first half to put the Sun Devils up eight, it appeared a major Pac-12 upset might be brewing. The same Sun Devils that have lost multiple conference games by double digits were in control of their rivals on their home floor.
But as has been the case several times this season, the defense adjusted to Horne on defense, and forced the ball out of his hands. In the second half, Horne scored just two points and missed all four of his 3-pointers.
That is where the familiar movie of the Sun Devils’ season flickered to life again. Without Horne as a threat to score, the Sun Devils had no consistent second option, and the offense again devolved into a series of isolated possessions with too much dribbling.
Still, the Wildcats could not muster much offense themselves, and the Sun Devils continued to scrap with everything they had on the defensive end. After a push shot from Graham from about eight feet away, one he makes consistently, the Sun Devils trailed by one at 47-46.
It was a good day for Graham, who led the Sun Devils with eight rebounds and also added nine points.
Then came the defining sequence of the game. Kerr Kriisa, the emotional catalyst for the Wildcats all season, made his second 3-pointer of the game and blew a kiss to the McKale Center crowd, which roared with approval as the score changed to 50-46.
It was a second-chance point for the Wildcats, three of the 13 they had for the game, and more importantly, it solidified the newfound confidence of Kriisa. The man who hadn’t made a field goal in three halves of basketball had now made two huge 3-pointers.
Arizona State needed an answer, but two trips to foul line by Marreon Jackson and Graham netted out a 2 for 4 result, and for the first time all day, the Wildcats were ready to strike.
On the next trip down the court offensively for Arizona, guard Dalen Terry missed a jumper, but before the ball moved off the rim, Arizona forward Oumar Ballo made contact with it, an obvious case of basket interference.
There was no whistle, and Omar made the most of his good fortune with a put-back layup to push the Wildcats back in front by four.
Bobby Hurley was back on the sidelines for Arizona State after a one-game suspension was dealt to him by the Pac-12 after his confrontation with officials following the Jan. 22 loss to Stanford. Guard Jay Heath had served the same suspension, and was back on the floor with a nice performance of 10 points on 4 for 9 shooting.
Through much of the first half, the demeanor of Arizona State’s head coach was a far departure from typical Hurley. The typically mercurial leader was as serene as he could be in such a situation. He even flashed a few smiles, albeit many of them looked as forced as those coming from an average Joe during a camping trip with his in-laws.
Then came the no-call. In that moment, Hurley changed from Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk, launching a torrid assault of the officials for everything he felt in that moment and for everything he wished he had said in the first 30 minutes.
Ironically, as quintessential Hurley returned, so did the play of his team from the first 17 games of the season. The Sun Devils spent the next eight minutes shooting 2 for 15 from the floor and lost touch with their rivals as Arizona went on a 15-8 run to put the game on ice.
The Sun Devils played their best half of the season against the Wildcats. They proved to themselves, their fans, and to those watching a nationally televised college basketball game that they have always had the ability to contend. The Sun Devils won the first 30 minutes.
But great teams close games with defense, and make shots when they matter the most. Arizona is a great team this season, and accomplished both of those feats in the final 10 minutes.
Next week, Arizona State will return to Tempe, where their schedule shows no signs of a letup. On Thursday, No. 16 USC comes to town. Then on Saturday, the Sun Devils will host No. 5 UCLA.