There’s something mystical about Wells Fargo Arena that turns the Arizona State men’s basketball team into a giant-killer at least once a season. Kind of like the mysterious source of energy that supposedly comes from the vortexes of Sedona.
Last year, the Sun Devils pulled off a huge upset of rival University of Arizona at Wells Fargo when the Wildcats were the No. 2 team in the country.
This year, the Cats blew out the Devils in Tucson in a 73-49 rout in the Jan. 4 conference opener. But yesterday, back again in Tempe in their own little version of the Magic Kingdom, the Sun Devils pulled off another stunning upset of their cross-state rival – when the Wildcats, who had lost just two games all season, were ranked No. 6 coming into the game .
Whew! What a game this was. High energy, physical, fast-break basketball played in such a way that, by the time there were still two minutes left on the clock, six players on the floor were carrying four fouls apiece. This was truly a fan’s delight.
The 81-78 final breaks an 8-8 deadlock between the two teams over the previous 16 games coming into yesterday’s encounter.
ASU, at 12-11 overall and 4-6 in conference, is unranked. But you couldn’t tell it by watching them play yesterday afternoon. Arizona took its first lead of the game at 8-6 early in the first half, but then the remainder of the first half saw eight scoring ties before the Sun Devils took the biggest lead of the game at 34-29 and then pushed it to seven points to go into the locker room with a 41-34 lead.
It was the largest halftime deficit the Wildcats have faced all year.
As the second half opened, the Devils extended the lead to nine points and then held on to it with the tenacity of a mean junk-yard dog with a bone.
Arizona closed the gap to two points at 52-50, and a couple more times after that, but couldn’t get back on top of the Devils who matched basket-for-basket with the Cats and turned up the defensive effort as well. The hometown fans that had packed into Wells Fargo Arena provided the encouragement throughout, but went into a frenzy down the stretch when it looked like an ASU upset was on the horizon.
The roof nearly came off when, with ASU ahead by four points and a minute left on the clock,senior guard Bo Barnes hit a high-arching three-point shot from behind the NBA line that touched nothing but net and gave the Sun Devils the margin they needed to hold off the visitors the rest of the way.
After being humiliated in their first encounter this season with the Cats, ASU wanted to let their hated rival to the south know this game would be different. And it was. It took the Sun Devils less than 20 seconds to score their first basket for the early lead, and then were able to show resiliency by bouncing back after Arizona recovered and pulled away to a seven-point lead as the game passed the halfway point of the first quarter.
Then, like a prize fighter, ASU stood toe-to-toe with the sixth-best team in the country and duked it out. By the time the scoreboard showed the game knotted at 29-29, there had been eight scoring ties. By the time the half ended, there had been eight lead changes.
A made three-pointer by senior forward Jon Gilling gave the Devils an eight-point lead with less than two minutes left in the half, and ASU was on its way to one of its best first-half performances of the season. The Devils held the edge in scoring in the paint and also out-rebounded the Cats in the first 20 minutes, while freshman point guard Tra Holder led all scorers with 10 points.
Within the fist minute of the second half, ASU pushed their lead to nine points, thanks in large part to the hot hand of sophomore forward Savon Goodman, who had scored 14 of his 15 points by early in the second half on 7-of-7 shooting. He opened the second half by scoring all of ASU’s first four baskets – all layups.
More than once in the second half Arizona was able to pull within two points, but each time the Sun Devils answered the challenge. They made their free throws down the final stretch, finishing the game 22-of-28 from the line, to keep the Cats at arm’s length. The Devils would have won this one by six points, but Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell hit a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Arizona held the slight edge on the boards, 37 rebounds to ASU’s 34. But the Sun Devils, who rely heavily on the three-point shot, were hotter from the field with 50 percent shooting to Arizona’s 45.1 percent, and converted 46.7 percent of their three-point attempts to Arizona’s 37.5 percent.
Barnes led the Sun Devils in scoring with 18 points, but the team had three other double-digit contributors. Goodman and Holder had 15 apiece and junior Gerry Blakes chipped in 14 points. McConnell had a big night for the Cats, going 11-for-19 from the field for 25 points, while three others were in double digits: Stanley Johnson (16), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (14), and Brandon Ashley (13).
When the game started, ASU head coach Herb Sendek was feeling ill. You couldn’t tell it by watching him on the sidelines, and it certainly didn’t seem to effect his game direction.
Arizona’s boss, Sean Miller, didn’t see any let-down either. “I thought ASU did a great job of moving the basketball,” he said after the game. “They shared it, they moved it, they drove relentlessly into the paint, and certainly drew a lot of fouls on us. But we didn’t have our defense.
“We broke down way too many times… and ASU was the better team today.”
(Photo: ASU Athletics)