Saturday night was Camelot once again for Arizona State at Desert Financial Arena.
It was the euphoric experience that Sun Devil fans haven’t felt in a considerable amount of time. It was a reminder of why. Why fans continued to show up despite the team’s lackluster 17-27 record over the past two season. Why the players committed to play for a school in a major conference with opponents possessing Final Four pedigrees that has games broadcasted to a national audience. Why their coach, Bobby Hurley, has stayed the course despite increasing criticism of his coaching ability as his teams have slid into mediocrity.
The Sun Devils (7-13, 3-7 Pac-12) did not win the national championship last night. They still possess a losing record in a season with numerous missteps. They got the best shot from the No. 3 UCLA Bruins over the duration of regulation and three overtime periods.
But when the dust settled just over three hours after the game tipped off at 8 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona State was on top of the scoreboard 87-84.
In totality, the game lasted 55 minutes. Numerous times, the game stood at a crossroads. In homage to the three overtimes, these are the vital three moments from Arizona State’s monumental upset victory.
A Late First Half Hustle Play by Kimani Lawrence
For the third-straight game against a ranked opponent, Arizona State came out of the gates firing. A reverse slam from Alonzo Gaffney opened the scoring and ignited the crowd, and the play from the Sun Devils kept them engaged for the first 11 minutes of the first half as they traded blows with the Bruins on the scoreboard.
A high-to-low pass between Sun Devil forwards Jalen Graham and Lawrence resulted in a room service layup to even the score at 19-19 with nine minutes until halftime. The Bruins responded with a display of offensive firepower representative of their national ranking.
On consecutive possessions, Jules Bernard hit a 3-pointer from the wing and Jaime Jaquez Jr. canned another one from straightaway. Cody Riley split a pair a free-throws a few moments later, and the Bruins were on a 7-0 run to make score 26-19.
Marreon Jackson, already with six points off a pair of 3-pointers, dribbled into the lane of a screen from Gaffney. Jackson’s greatest strength, his unshakeable self-belief, can also work to his detriment. And as he threw up a low-percentage floater over the much taller Riley, it appeared the latter was at play once again.
Sure enough, clank. Off the left side of the iron.
Bernard was in prime initial position for the rebound as the ball skipped toward the corner. But Lawrence flew in from the opposite elbow and warded Bernard off, chasing the rebound down against the boundary.
Lawrence wheeled around, maneuvering past the off-balance Bernard. Bruin guard Tyger Campbell stepped into his path, attempting to draw a charge. Lawrence lowered his shoulder into him for a collision that belonged on a football field, and slithered past Riley for a left-handed layup that brought the crowd to its feet once more. (6:52)
It was another point on the redemption arch for Lawrence, who battled injuries and lost his way through the middle part of his five-year career in Tempe, only to recover his confidence and become the backbone of this Sun Devil team. He finished with 11 points and nine rebounds.
The Sun Devils closed the half on a 13-6 run to go into the break with a 34-32 lead.
Clutch Free-Throws from Jalen Graham
Graham entered the game shooting around 45 percent from the stripe. For a player so proficient at push shots while hanging in the air inside 15-feet, Graham’s form can sometimes appear clunky with both feet on the ground.
Arizona State had possessed as much of an 11-point lead in the second half, but UCLA had clawed back to hold a 60-58 advantage with 78 seconds remaining in regulation. Jackson was attempting an entry pass to Graham near the line, who caught it cleanly. But as the ball was in transit a whistle sounded and a foul was assessed to Riley. With the Sun Devils in the double bonus the rest of the way, Graham was sent to the line for a chance to tie the game.
Before the game, the junior from nearby Mountain Pointe High School was unsure he would be able to play. A bout with food poisoning left Graham feeling unsettled and weak just hours before tip.
He looked unaffected as he stepped up for his most consequential free-throws of the season. Graham grooved both through the net, and the Sun Devils evened the score (20:58).
UCLA would score once more, and Jackson added a pair of clutch free-throws of his own to send the game to overtime.
Still, the Bruins would have taken Graham at the line 100 times. Given his average, he is expected to miss 55 of those attempts. Instead the player who at one point this year was benched due to poor play and had his season start delayed due to a stint in COVID-19 protocols was smooth as butter, and the upset hopes remained alive into an extra period.
Defensive Anticipation from DJ Horne
Graham was sparked by his free-throws, and added four of his 16 points in the third overtime period to extend the Sun Devil lead to six. UCLA cut the deficit to four after a Campbell jumper, and was threatening to draw even closer with an opportunity to go two-for-one with 41 seconds left.
It’s only fitting the most pivotal moment of the third and final overtime for Arizona State occurred on the defense side of the ball. Campbell brought the ball across mid-court and sized up his defender, DJ Horne, who was backpedaling into position near the 3-point line.
The Bruins moved into a quick pick-and-roll, as Riley moved up to the top of the key to set a pick on the left side of Horne.
Aware of the Bruins’ intentions, Horne jumped in front of Campbell’s path just as the Bruins’ guard started moving left and got his hand on the ball. In a desperation attempt, Campbell tried to kick the ball over to Jaquez Jr.
The referee was right on top of it, and ruled the play a kicked-ball violation (36:55). Sun Devil basketball with 35 seconds remaining, ahead by four. Lawrence added two free-throws to extend the lead back to six.
Arizona State closed out the victory, one of the best in program history. The court was stormed as the Sun Devils brought joy back into Desert Financial Arena, and belief back into a program that sorely needed it.