(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
In a bizarre game to say the least, Arizona State was the better of the Arizona schools today, topping the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats 81-78. In a game that is hard to describe but thrilling to watch, the Sun Devils won their 11th game at home and showed no weaknesses in any aspect of their game.
The first half of this game was all about Tra Holder, who displayed an offensive attack the Sun Devils have yet to show this season largely due to the freshman point guard himself. He kept up the steady level of play he’s shown for the past five games, confidently finding his own shot as well as doing a phenomenal job of finding shots for his teammates.
“I’m so proud of him (Holder),” ASU head coach Herb Sendek said. “His attitude is so good. His work ethic is improving. He has such a great heart. He’s so easy to cheer for.”
His 10 points and five assists were both game highs at the intermission. Arizona’s senior point guard T.J. McConnell was doing similar things on the offensive end for his team, leading his team in scoring with nine points and two assists at half.
Holder also provided two of the biggest momentum-building plays of the first half, coming in back-to-back possessions. After stepping up to hit a huge three-pointer, sophomore forward Savon Goodman set a screen for Holder, which freed Goodman up to catch a beautiful alley-oop pass from Holder.
Arizona’s leading scorer, freshman forward Stanley Johnson, scored eight points on 3-9 shooting, missing a lot of good looks. Similarly for the Sun Devils, senior forward Shaquielle McKissic only had four points at halftime, making two of his seven shots.
What was most impressive about ASU’s defense was their ability to limit the production from Arizona’s big men down low, holding its starting front court to 15 points.
“It was a tough battle,” Goodman said. “They have Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) down there, (Brandon) Ashley and (Kaleb) Tarczewski, so we knew coming into the game that nothing was going to be easy, but our whole key was for me and Eric (Jacobsen) and partially Jon (Gilling), and Willie Atwood was to just own the boards.”
Goodman finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end.
What really stood out in terms of peculiarity in the first 20 minutes was the turnovers. Typically, the Sun Devils dig themselves in a hole from all of their turnovers, but their nine first-half turnovers didn’t seem to affect them much on the scoreboard.
Goodman came out of halftime with a chip on his shoulder, making the Sun Devils first four baskets and keeping his perfect shooting percentage from the first half.
At the 12:45 mark in the second half, ASU was shooting 54 percent, was 8-for-9 from the free-throw line and was outscoring Arizona in the paint 30 to 24.
The lead was held by ASU from the 7:29 mark in the first half, all the way to the end of the game. Against one of the most intimidating and talented defenses in the nation, ASU stepped up when the needed to and had its best all-around offensive performance of the year.
“There was times where they cut the lead to two, and we came down and got a stop and got a bucket,” Goodman said. “We just stuck to our game plan, we believed in each other as a team, and we’re always going to fight to the end.”
The biggest shot of the game came from the hands of senior guard Bo Barnes with the shot clock winding down to extend the lead to seven with 54 seconds remaining in the game.
“The coaches always say just keep confident in yourself,” Barnes said. “Tra did a great job of driving and collapsing my guy and he helped just a little bit, it was a great pass by him.”
Barnes’ teammates also have confidence in him to take that shot, no matter the situation.
“We play against Bo all day in practice,” Goodman said. “I had confidence that he was hitting the shot.”
The students and the Curtain of Distraction certainly did do their part, helping limit the Wildcats’ free throw percentage to 57 percent.
“Our students were incredible,” Sendek said. “I don’t have a final count but that has to be the largest student attendance we’ve ever had.”
All in all, this was easily the Sun Devil’s biggest win of the season, and Sendek gives a lot of credit to his team’s attitude.
“I don’t want to get too mushy but let me tell you we have terrific guys,” Sendek said. “They are easy to cheer for, I love coaching them. We’ve had some tough losses, but these guys, they show up the next day, they face the music, they want to learn, they want to get better.”