Yesterday, Bobby Hurley gave Arizona State basketball fans what they wanted. OK, it wasn’t a win, but it was a sign of hope for the future – maybe even the near future.
ASU didn’t win yesterday’s rivalry game with University of Arizona, Hurley’s first encounter with the Wildcat program, but Sun Devil fans should have taken home some encouraging memories.
Hurley did his best yesterday to re-ignite a rivalry that has waned in recent years as his unranked and over-matched team gave the No. 8 Wildcats all they could handle for the majority of the game in Tempe. The final score was a 12-point win for Arizona, 94-82, but the Sun Devils were still hanging around in the final minutes of the game, at one point within a couple of baskets of a major upset.
Hurley had his team prepared – and fired up. And he showed them the kind of passion he expects from them in a game this important, collecting two technicals in a span of 14 seconds that got him ejected from the game with 59 seconds remaining on the clock.
The 44-year-old first-year coach who won a couple of national championships while playing at Duke knew the win was slipping from his grasp, so he showed the fire and spirit from his playing days that brought the ASU fans to their feet in a frenzy, cheering on their Sun Devils and showing their appreciation for the toughness and never-give-up attitude they brought to the game.
Hurley is trying to mold this team into his own hard-working, blue-collar image. But it will take time to recruit in more of the kind of players he needs to go in that direction. Passion is important, but top-drawer talent is what it takes to compete in the Pac-12.
A couple of redwood trees in the paint, like Arizona’s 7-footers Dustan Ristic and Kaleb Tarczewski, would also help. Tarczewski had missed the previous eight games with a foot injury, but the Sun Devils were the unlucky team that had to deal with his return and figure out a way to deal with both Ristic and Tarczewski back on the floor.
Arizona had a 16-point lead at the 8:06 mark of the second half yesterday, but the Devils clawed their way back to an eight-point deficit on a driving lay-up by sophomore guard Tra Holder, and then narrowed it to six when 6’7″ forward Obinna Oleka started his drive from the top of the key and went unblocked to the rim for a thundering dunk that rocked Wells Fargo Arena.
But the Cats stuck to their inside-outside game and went to the free throw line frequently down the stretch to gradually pull away for the win.
In the first half of play, ASU gave early indications that this was not going to be a lopsided game, despite being a heavy underdog to a bigger Wildcat team that had lost just one game throughout the non-conference part of the schedule.
The teams exchanged leads a number of times before Arizona went on a 14-0 run in the final four minutes of the half. A Gerry Blakes steal that climaxed in a stuff at the other end of the floor ended the scoring drought and the Devils pulled to within six when Holder drove the lane and was fouled with three seconds left before intermission, to give Arizona a lead that had been cut to six, 41-35.
ASU got a lot of production on the perimeter in the first half, connecting on 5-of-14 shooting from behind the arc, while UofA countered with 59 percent shooting from the floor. But it was all the Devils could do in the second half to just keep within striking distance.
This was the conference opener for both teams. Hurley put together an encouraging 10-3 non-conference mark, but the game with the Wildcats marks the start of a new adventure as 18 more Pac-12 games await.
One of those is a re-match with Arizona on Feb. 17. And that game is in Tucson, where the Cats have won a nation-leading 48 straight games.
Just something else to think about, Bobby, as you begin your first trip through the Pac-12 gauntlet.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)