(Photo: Nicole Hernandez/WCSN)
The Arizona State Sun Devils struggled to hang onto their momentum for 40 full minutes on Sunday in Tempe, but in a game that ASU coach Bobby Hurley said cost him years of his life, the Devils squeaked out an 83-82 victory over the USC Trojans.
The contest bore striking resemblance to a win over Colorado earlier this season, as Tra Holder made a pair of clutch free throws to help the Devils overcome a 10-point deficit.
“It’s big, especially with the tournament coming,” Junior guard Kodi Justice said of the comeback. “We’re just finding ways to win. Every time we come together as a team and we stay together, even when it seems we might be out, we always for some reason click and make big plays.”
The Sun Devils once again put their three-point prowess on display for much of the game, shooting 13-of-28 from that range. The second-half blues struck again though as the Devils fell off to shoot 3-of-12 from deep in the final frame.
ASU started 4-of-7 from the floor, not making a two-point shot until the 13:29 mark. Justice became the driving force of the first half, shooting 4-of-5 from deep in the first 20 minutes. He led the team with 22 points, a career high, and made a decisive three with 14 seconds left to keep the Devils in the game.
“I try to get out of myself,” Justice said. “I make sure he’s alright and they know the defensive coverage and what we’re doing.”
ASU overwhelmed the Trojans’ defense in the first half. The Devils shot 10-of-16 from deep and had 10 assists on 17 made shots. In an unexpected development, ASU had strong offensive production without much help from Torian Graham. Graham, who ranks second in points per game in the Pac-12, shot 0-of-5 to start.
However, USC took as much as it gave, stretching ASU’s defense every possession. A last-second three by Chimezie Metu left the Devils trailing 48-47 at halftime despite the offensive output.
In a twist for the Sun Devils, who once again had only seven scholarship players available on Sunday, they got strong bench play. Andre Adams and Ramon Vila both gave ASU good minutes, and played early. The Devils did not bring a sub in against UCLA on Thursday during the first half.
“I feel good about what Andre Adams and Ramon Vila did tonight,” Hurley said. “They added something to this. They were important in this victory.”
Adams finished with five points and five rebounds, including four offensive boards. He’s missed much of the season with continuing knee complications since tearing an ACL and missing the totality of last year.
Vila finished with six points and was a plus-8 for the game. Both had a couple key putbacks to keep ASU’s momentum going early. A few high-energy plays from them, and a couple alley-oops from both sides, made for a solid and unexpected highlight reel.
The first half was also unique due to the lack of fouls, with the two teams combining for only eight whistles. ASU had only three fouls called against them and finished the game with nine.
After the break, the duel continued. ASU scored the first three buckets of the half to take a 53-48 lead. But, as we have seen many times before, the shot went cold, as a 1-for-7 stretch allowed USC to tie and take a 64-63 lead with about 10 minutes left.
The Devils fought to stay in the game, but the defense faltered. ASU has the least-effective defense in the conference this season and it cost them. USC shot 56 percent from the floor in the game.
The Trojans dropped the hammer on ASU with a 12-1 run to take a 79-69 lead at 5:09. ASU ran out of gas and shot 1-of-10, letting USC run away. It looked like another blown second half, as per the norm for ASU.
Then, in the closing 2:32 of the game, ASU did just about everything right. The Devils went on a 12-1 run of their own. Trailing by four, Justice hit a wild stepback three to bring ASU within one.
“We have a coach that builds that into us every single day,” Justice said. “You know you’re never out. There’s a way to lose the right way and a way to lose the wrong way. If you just keep battling, you always have a shot.”
ASU disrupted the ensuing inbound with a strong press defense, forcing a steal, and Holder drove to the basket on the broken play. He got the foul and once again hitting two clutch free throws without a doubt.
Holder said that in his mind at the time was a rude comment made by a fan earlier in the game, but chose not to give any further details, saying both he and the fan were “part of the Sun Devil family.”
Bennie Boatwright got a decent look on the final shot but found nothing but rim, and Wells Fargo Arena exploded with excitement at the turnaround.
The Sun Devils (14-16, 7-10 in Pac-12) host Arizona on Saturday, March 4 for their final game of the season before the conference tournament.