It was somehow a fitting end to Arizona State’s 2022-23 men’s basketball season, and a justifiably frustrating one, maddening even.
The perfect coalescence of a team that relied on the sum of its individual performances to reach its furthest destination in four years, and the lunacy of a tournament that operates under permanent sudden-death conditions.
In a game where each team held an advantage of over 10 points, the No. 6 seeded TCU Horned Frogs squeezed out a victory by a single possession, overcoming a valiant effort from the Sun Devils to win 72-70.
“Just heartbroken really for my guys,” said Arizona State head coach Bobby Hurley after the game. “They played a winning game. It was a heck of a game to be a part of. Credit TCU for doing things out there that they’ve been doing.”
Arizona State had played 25 games before facing TCU in their Round of 64 matchup at Ball Arena in Denver, Colo., but the final two scoring plays tell the story of the team and their season just as well as any of those previous 25 games could.
First, it was DJ Horne’s game-tying three in the clutch with 15 seconds remaining. It was quintessential Arizona State under Hurley; meaning, there was no doubt Horne would take the shot as soon as he caught the inbounds pass.
Senior forward Warren Washington set a screen for Desmond Cambridge, who zipped past Horne at the top of the key. For a microscopic moment, Horne’s defender Rondel Walker averted his gaze, and the third-year Sun Devil guard went to work.
Horne lurched forward, driving Walker backward. Then as Horne got to the border of the three-point line, he pulled the emergency brake, causing Walker’s weight to fall on his back foot. By the time Walker had recovered to contest, Horne’s equalizing attempt was already through the net.
It was Horne’s 17th point of the night, his stat line updating to 4-for-5 on 3-pointers. The Sun Devils always ride the hot hand, and on this night, Horne just happened to have the Midas touch, too. Tie game, 70-70.
“Coach put the ball in my hands with the time we had left in the game,” Horne said. “I just felt confident I could bring my defender down and get a good shot.”
That was the story of the Sun Devil offense all season. It’s a make or miss game already, but the Sun Devils take that truth and amplify it to the extreme.
They do not run the crisp, orchestral motion offenses you might see from the Princeton Tigers or Virginia Cavaliers. Arizona State runs a high concentration of iso-ball. Beat your man, make your shot, no matter how difficult or low-percentage, and win the game.
Sometimes, it works great, as evidenced by their record-smashing performance on Wednesday night in a 98-73 victory over Nevada in the First Four. Sometimes, it works very poorly, such as the game the Sun Devils shot 28 percent from the field and 19 percent on 3-pointers in a humbling 97-60 loss to San Francisco in December.
And both sides of the coin were on display against TCU. When the Sun Devils faced an early 15-6 deficit, it was guard Jamiya Neal hitting a difficult ranging jumper off the dribble near the baseline first, and quickly after forward Alonzo Gaffney connected on a professional-grade turnaround jumper in virtually the same spot.
“Alonzo Gaffney, what he’s done the last few weeks, just his activity and his defense at the end of the first half, and just the plays that he’s making,” Hurley said. “Jamiya has grown. He came in again when we were struggling early and made big shots to help us get back in.”
From there, the Sun Devils continued to ride the wave, connecting on their typical choice of shots to build a 44-37 halftime lead. In the early goings of the second half, it was Frankie Collins’ explosive right-handed dunk over Chuck O’Bannon that confirmed the Sun Devils’ confidence was at a game-high.
FRANKIE COLLINS WITH THE POSTER #MarchMadness | @SunDevilHoops pic.twitter.com/nV4F2QZKcQ— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 18, 2023
But their mercurial nature leads them to go quiet for long stretches from the field, including that dry spell in the closing stages against the Horned Frogs. As leading scorer Mike Miles (26 points) and Damon Baugh (11 points, 8 assists) traded crunch-time plays, the shot selection for the Sun Devils deteriorated.
“Miles is a heck of a player in the Big 12. We knew on scouting he was going ot drive it, and we talked to our guys knowing that they (TCU) were going to be very aggressive drivers to the point. He really initiated a lot of contact and was able to get to the free-throw line.”
Desmond Cambridge Jr., the Nevada transfer who has played a major role in Arizona State advancing this far, had a poor shooting night. The guard went 4-for-15 from the field (26%) and out of his six missed jump shots, two came in the final 4:30 on low-percentage attempts.
Attempting to put the game away, the Sun Devils resorted to outside jump shots, which can lead to long rebounds that spark transition opportunities, where TCU repeatedly got to the free-throw line in the closing stages, ultimately outshooting Arizona State 20-12 at the stripe.
But one eventually had to fall, and it looked as if Horne’s 3-pointer would be remembered as an all-time Sun Devil basketball clutch shot if the team could shut down TCU for the next 15 seconds.
Now the second scoring play. What has kept the Sun Devils in games throughout the season has been their stingy defense, which ranked No. 34 in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency. But at the last moment, it broke down.
The Horned Frogs’ Jakobe Coles caught the pass outside the 3-point arc, but as Collins’ closeout to the ball was overzealous, Coles maneuvered past and drove toward the bucket. Washington, who was guarding Emmanuel Miller on low block, sank toward his man instead of surfacing to stop Coles. From point blank range, he dropped in the game-winning bucket with two seconds remaining.
Bobby Hurley had a timeout to use, but he did not take it. 21 years ago, he was on the court when his college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, called a timeout and set up the miracle shot on the three-quarters-court pass to Christian Laettner. It was a similar situation, but Hurley allowed the game to play on, and Collins’ heave at the buzzer sailed high.
“That one you can put on me because I knew I had a timeout,” Hurley said. “Maybe we could have threw it to half court and flipped it to a guard and gotten about 20 feet closer. Yeah, that’s certainly something I’ll think about.”
It was March in a moment. It was a great play made by player for a higher-seeded team, a team that was supposed to win this game anyways.
And yet, Arizona State by and large should have come away with this. That in and of itself will sting, but through the pain there is plenty of perspective, and the reality still favors the Sun Devils.
This team should not have been here. It took a half-court heave in Tucson, a spirited run to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, and a dominating performance in the First Four just to qualify for this game. TCU plays in the best men’s basketball conference in the country, and likely would be a threat to win the Pac-12 if they played in that conference instead.
Bobby Hurley, who many believed to be on the hot seat after consecutive disappointing seasons, including a flop in 2020-21 that Hurley later labeled as “dysfunction at its finest.”
But there he was, one of college basketball’s most bombastic coaches, leading the Sun Devils to their highest number of wins (23) in his tenure, marking the fourth time in six years the program has eclipsed the 20-win mark.
68 teams began the tournament. One win leave the gauntlet a champion. There are certainly better ways to decide a champion. But the story of the year should not be about how the Sun Devils blew a late lead to TCU, it should be about how the program has ostensibly righted itself after it was lost during the pandemic years.
“They’re fighters,” Hurley said of his team. “We’ve won a lot of different ways. We’ve had huge comeback wins. We’ve won a lot of close games this year, just didn’t work out for us tonight. But that was an exciting game. That’s what Arizona State basketball looks like.”
The Sun Devils will have returners from this squad for next season. Hurley’s next step will be to take this program to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend.