(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
In its first game of the 2015-16 season, No. 15 Arizona State couldn’t quite close out No. 18 Kentucky, losing to the Wildcats 68-64 in overtime at Wells Fargo Arena.
When they needed it most, Kentucky trusted the ball in the hot hand of Mikayla Epps, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and 20 on the night. Epps took the ball down the court, drove and nearly managed to score despite being fouled by Brunner.
Epps hit both of her free throws to knot the game at 56-56 and Elisha Davis wasn’t able to hit a mid-range jumper as time expired, sending ASU’s first game of the season into overtime.
As she had in the fourth quarter, Epps continued to carry the Wildcats on her back as she scored eight of Kentucky’s 12 points in the overtime period, including two free throws with five seconds remaining to ice the game.
Despite having multiple opportunities to extend their lead and win the game, the Sun Devils couldn’t quite find a way to finish off the Wildcats, and it cost them.
“We didn’t step up today the way we’re capable of,” head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “They knew what they needed to do, we just didn’t quite do it.”
The Sun Devils shot 3-8 in the overtime period and weren’t able to get to the free throw line at all, while the Wildcats were 4-5 from the field and hit four clutch free throws.
“We’ll get a lot better from this game,” Turner Thorne said. “As good as we feel like we can be, we’re not yet. We’re too inconsistent.”
It was an unexpected start for the Sun Devils as forward Sophie Brunner, typically known for her presence down low, nailed a three pointer for their first points of the season.
The game got very sloppy after that though, with both teams combining for a total of 25 turnovers in the first half.
Brunner continued to play well, but ASU struggled to find any rhythm on offense and went into the second quarter trailing Kentucky 12-10.
The Sun Devils finally began to gel on offense in the second quarter and outscored the Wildcats 19-5 behind strong outside shooting from Elisha Davis and Arnecia Hawkins.
ASU managed to repeatedly get to the line and center Quinn Dornstauder got some huge blocks to increase the Sun Devils’ lead, with a pretty turnaround jumper by Brunner to beat the buzzer serving as the exclamation point as ASU took a 29-17 lead into halftime.
The Sun Devils’ strong defensive effort was the key to their good start, allowing the Wildcats to shoot just 21.4% from the floor in the first half, and while ASU only shot 30.8%, the improvement in the chemistry of the offense as the game wore on was apparent.
As the third quarter began, Kentucky’s size began to finally come into play. ASU was consistently outmuscled down low, and behind strong post play from Batouly Camara and steady scoring from Janee Thompson, the Wildcats closed the quarter on a 13-2 run to cut it to a 39-38 game.
Both teams traded punches throughout an extremely competitive fourth quarter, with Brunner hitting multiple clutch shots in the post to help ASU maintain a small lead.
After continuous back and forth scoring, Katie Hempen hit a tough fade away jumper with only 14 seconds to go to give the Sun Devils a 56-54 lead. It seemed as if it was the shot that would finally separate ASU from Kentucky, but it was not to be on this night. Epps’ performance secured the Wildcats’ second win of the season.
The loss drops ASU to 0-1 on the season, but there’s no need to panic. The Sun Devils performed extremely well against a tough ranked opponent and had every chance to win the game.
“We really just didn’t do what we were supposed to do,” Brunner said. “We didn’t really help on Epps, we just kind of left whoever was guarding her out to dry so we just gotta be more locked in on ‘D’ and help each other instead of just worrying about who we’re guarding.”
The game felt like a NCAA tournament matchup throughout, and the experience of playing against high-caliber teams like Kentucky will no doubt help ASU in the long run.
“They’re a great team,” Davis said. “They showed great poise down the stretch, they were hungry, they did whatever they adjusted to at halftime, so I think this prepared us…because every game after this will be the same or that much harder. So this has helped us for our tough schedule that we’re put in, and I think that this will definitely help us going forward.”
Player of the Game: Mikayla Epps
Had the Sun Devils managed to pull out the victory, this would undoubtedly be going to Brunner, but Epps’ play down the stretch earns her the player of the game.
Epps led the game in scoring with 20 points while shooting 6-11 from the field, but her most important contribution came from the free throw line. She was 8-9 from the charity stripe, hitting two free throws to send the game to overtime and two free throws to put the nail in the coffin at the end of overtime.
With such a strong performance from Epps, Kentucky has reason to be optimistic about the season.
Stat of the Night: 59.3 percent
Kentucky’s offense was abysmal in the first half as they shot only 21.4 percent from the field, which is what caused them to fall into a 12-point hole at the break. Fortunately for the Wildcats, they caught fire in the second half, shooting 59.3 percent and storming back to push the game to overtime. Epps and Batouly Camara were the driving force behind this offensive explosion, shooting 54.5 percent and 80.0 percent respectively.
The Sun Devils will travel to Dallas to take on the SMU Mustangs on Saturday, Nov. 21. Tip-off is at noon.