Bobby Hurley has yet to beat the University of Arizona since taking over as head basketball coach at Arizona State, losing his sixth straight against the Wildcats last night.
But the fiery competitor from New Jersey has certainly brought excitement to the rivalry.
Hurley’s team this season has seven come-back wins, and last night in Wells Fargo Arena, the Sun Devils came within minutes of their eighth. Down 18 points at one point in the first half, ASU fought back, using a 14-2 run to bring them within six points and then used a long three-pointer by Shannon Evans to close the gap to one point and go into the locker room down 39-38.
And it didn’t take long after the second half started to stake out a claim to the lead, going ahead 41-39 in the first minute. The Devils went on a 31-6 run to take a seven-point lead before Arizona re-took the lead, 51-50 when Deandre Ayton dropped in a couple of free throws with just under 11 minutes left to play.
The game was knotted again at 63-63, with 3:35 left on the clock. But it took just two minutes for Arizona to stretch its lead again to seven points and hold on the rest of the way for the 77-70 victory.
With the Sun Devils (19-7, 7-7) sitting precariously on the edge of the Top 25 rankings at No. 25, the loss will likely drop them from the list. However, last night’s performance did something important. It showed that ASU should be included in the field of 64 when the NCAA Tournament begins next month.
It also showed a national TV audience (ESPN) the kind of fan support that has returned to Tempe. Last night’s game was sold out (14,233), even after the school recently added another 4,000 seats to Wells Fargo by removing some temporary walls that had been erected a few years ago.
And, depending on how the rest of the schedule plays out, the Devils could even get a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament.
This was the second time the two teams have met this season, and both times it felt like the rivalry of old, when either team had a legitimate chance of pulling off the win. And both times, the teams were each ranked in the Top 25.
The combined margin for both games was 13 points. Once again, the rivalry has become competitive.
This has been an usual season for both schools. ASU wasn’t given much attention in the pre-season, but started the 2017-18 schedule by winning its first 12 games and being one of the last undefeated teams in the country. By Week 7, after stunning upsets of Kansas, Xavier, and Kansas State, ASU was ranked No. 3 in the country.
But they got beat by Arizona in the Pac-12 opener and continued to play inconsistently, eventually falling out of the rankings. Three straight wins prior to last night’s game, including an impressive sweep of the California schools, enabled them to squeeze back into the Top 25.
Arizona, on the other hand, came into the season ranked No. 2, a consensus pick to win the Pac-12, and a likely Final Four participant. But the Cats (21-6, 11-3) lost three straight games in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament over the Thanksgiving holidays and dropped like a rock from the rankings. Now they’re back and in first place in the conference.
The recruiting success enjoyed by Arizona head coach Sean Miller, who has been drawing top-10 recruiting classes for the last five years, has a lot to do with the Wildcats being able to stay out front in the rivalry.
One of those recruits, the dominating Ayton, made life miserable for the Sun Devils last night. The 7-footer, who played at Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix and was the country’s No. 1 prospect, had 25 points and 16 rebounds. And junior guard Allonzo Trier contributed another 19 points.
The big guns for ASU were provided by a couple of senior guards, Tra Holder (20 points, four assists) and Kodi Justice (19 points on 50 percent shooting). It was Justice, from Mesa’ Dobson High School, who fueled the Devils’ late-game rally, scoring nine straight points to transform a daunting double-digit deficit to just nine points with just under six minutes to go.
“I feel like we emptied the tank tonight,” said Hurley after the game. “It was a high-level game with both teams playing hard and it was a fun one to be part of.”
And that’s what the fans in Tempe have been waiting for. The rivalry is back.