(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Rivalry games often cause conventional wisdom and logic to be thrown out the door as was the case the last two seasons Arizona State upset Arizona in Wells Fargo Arena. What doesn’t get thrown out in these games is experience, and that’s what made the difference in No. 8 Arizona’s 94-82 win over ASU in Tempe.
After ASU got out to a 28-19 lead behind some hot shooting from deep, the Wildcats went on a 13-0 run of their own to six point lead heading into the half.
While the Sun Devils started 3-for-4 from beyond the arc, Arizona ramped up its defense, regularly hedging out hard on ball screens and forced several rushed and out-of-rhythm shots from the perimeter. It was during a five-minute scoring drought that the Wildcats took the lead away from the Sun Devils.
“I thought in the first half, we really had great energy, particularly on defense and made some plays at the rim,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “Then we had that stretch where we kind of forgot what got us to that point and struggled a little bit.”
While ASU went through energetic woes, it got a good spark off the bench from junior foward Obinna Oleka. After beginning the game with an errant pass and turnover, Oleka hit a pair of threes as a part of a perfect 3-for-3 half from the field and eight points. He finished the game with 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting, three rebounds and three blocks.
“He’s (Oleka) making strides, and he’s playing with confidence,” Hurley said. “It’s really nice from where he’s come from the early stages of the season to be in a game with a lot on the line early in league play. It’s exciting that he’s developing, and we know that he’s capable and has the talent to do that.”
With both teams trading baskets in the second half, Arizona senior guard Gabe York caught fire. York connected on three threes in the middle of the second half that sparked helped Arizona stretch its lead to 13 points. He finished with 22 points on 4-for-7 shooting from distance, six assists and five rebounds. It was a far cry from his performance in last season’s loss to ASU, where York posted a meager eight points in 21 minutes.
“I’ve seen it (York’s play) in a number of games that I’ve watched,” Hurley said. “The Gonzaga game, he hit a big three and numerous big player for them on offense, and he’s an older guy that’s been through the wars, and he came up big with his perimeter shooting.”
Following a dunk from Arizona junior guard Kadeem Allen that stretched the lead to 16 points, ASU slowly climbed back into the game. The Sun Devils alternated between zone, man-to-man and a full-court trap to chip away at the Wildcat lead.
“Our activity is always going to be a factor in how we play,” ASU senior guard Gerry Blakes said. “Our grit and our grind is also a big thing.”
A three from ASU sophomore guard Tra Holder brought the Sun Devils within six points with 1:21 left, but that was as close as the Sun Devils got as the Wildcats knocked in free throws to close out the victory. Holder set a new career-high 24 points on 7-for-16 shooting.
With 1:14 remaining, Hurley received a techincal foul after arguing a call on ASU junior forward Savon Goodman, who was quiet in his first game back since missing the last four due to unspecified reasons.
Just 14 seconds later, Holder was called for a foul, and Hurley’s reaction earned him a second technical foul and ejection from his first Pac-12 basketball game.
“I really wouldn’t have changed anything I did today in terms of anything that happened,” Hurley said. “That’s as far as I’m going to comment about any of that other than I always want spotlight to be on the performers and the guys in the game, and it shouldn’t be about anything more than that. And that goes for all of us. That goes for coaches, officials, everyone. It should always be about the players. Players should decide the game.”
For his players though, seeing their coach get fired up on the sideline was more of a positive than anything else.
“He fights for us,” senior forward Willie Atwood said. He wants us to play hard, and he wishes he was out there on the court too, so we try to get the fire from him because he really fights for us hard, and we play for him hard. He’s just emotionally so into the game. That’s what I got from it.”
Blakes added: “We appreciate him fighting for us like he does. That’s big for us, and ultimately, that intensity rubs off on us.”
Despite that intensity, the Sun Devils were beaten down on the glass, an area of the game they have become accustomed to dominating. However, the Wildcats were bigger and quicker to the rebounds and finished plus-8 on the boards.
“As a staff, we talked about that (rebounding),” Hurley said. “We knew we would have to hit some shots, and it would be hard to count on us hitting the glass hard because they’ve been a great rebounding team and they have size, and (Arizona head coach) Sean (Miller) does a great job of teaching his defense and asking his players to give effort in rebounding, so we have a lot of respect for how hard they competed and for how they were coached.”
The Sun Devils also struggled defending the paint as Arizona often got inside without much trouble. The Wildcats shot 55.6 percent from the field, and sophomore center Dustan Ristic particularly had an easy time doing what he wanted on the block. The Serbian racked up 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting, and redshirt senior Ryan Anderson tallied a game-high 10 rebounds of his own.
ASU has a few days to recover and regroup before it heads to Los Angeles to take on the USC Trojans on January 7.
“Arizona is a great program,” Hurley said. “They’ve been a great program, and it’s part of the attraction to coaching in the Pac-12 is you get a chance to compete against programs like that, so it was a great battle. Loved the crowd, the energy was outstanding. It was a high-scoring game. Guys were making shot and making plays. I would imagine that it was an enjoyable game to watch through a lot of stretches.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com