(Photo: Josh Orcutt/WCSN)
Arizona State held the lead just three times in the second half and only once in the last 14 minutes of play, but that one time was the difference maker as the Sun Devils escaped with a 70-68 win over UC Santa Barbara.
“Just really proud of my team and the way they responded in late-game situations and found a way to win the game down the stretch – both ends of the court,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said.
Despite shooting just 33.9 percent from the field, the Sun Devils found themselves tied with the Gauchos at 68 all with 30 seconds remaining. After a UCSB timeout, UCSB junior guard Eric Childress pulled up for a mid-range floater, but ASU senior center Eric Jacobsen rejected the shot.
On ASU’s ensuing possession, sophomore guard Kodi Justice missed a fadeaway jumpshot with three seconds remaining, but senior center Eric Jacobsen pounced on the rebound and sank the putback to seal the win.
“It’s (the win) big-time,” Jacobsen said. “It says a lot about our guys, our character and just to be able to play through stuff like that. They’re good teaching points too because I’m sure there we’ll have other games we shoot just as bad.”
It was anything but pretty from the start for ASU as the Sun Devils didn’t score a point until nearly four minutes into the game. In the first half, the Sun Devils shot just 28.6 percent from the field, but they went 9-for-11 at the free-throw line to keep the deficit at two points entering halftime.
Meanwhile, the Gauchos had much more flow and rhythm on the offensive end, shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“I’m hoping it (the offense) turns because we just haven’t had a game yet where we’ve really shot it well from outside,” Hurley said. “I know we have guys that are capable of doing that, but 33 percent – to shoot that number – and to give up 50 (percent) and find a way to win, you feel fortunate.”
In particular, UCSB senior guard Michael Bryson tore up the Sun Devils in every way offensively. Bryson racked up 23 points on 8-for-12 shooting and dished out six assists as well. As a team, UCSB assisted on all but five of its 26 made shots.
“That guy (Bryson) is a tough matchup,” Hurley said. “He can post a little bit, he can shoot from the outside, and put the ball on the floor. He would fit right in with most teams at this level and be a highly productive player.”
For as much as Bryson did during the game, UCSB’s second-leading scorer, senior guard John Green, struggled on his way to just five points on 2-for-12 shooting. Per usual, it was ASU senior guard Gerry Blakes doing most of the on-ball work that led to Green’s struggles.
With that in mind, ASU struggled just as mightily as a team as Green did individually. The Gauchos opted to run a 2-3 zone for the majority of the game, and the Sun Devils looked passive and hesitant along the perimeter. They also failed to give UCSB any reason to come out of the zone as they shot just 7-for-25 from three.
“We just get a little too passive (against the zone),” Jacobsen said. “We pull back the reigns a little bit, so if we can figure out how to keep attacking, driving, kicking – then the jump shots will start falling… In practice, some days, it seems like some guys can’t miss, so it’s only a matter of time until those show up in the game.”
While the jump shots weren’t falling for the Sun Devils, they lived at the free-throw line, shooting 23-for-26 from the charity stripe. They also ate up the offensive boards and scored 25 second-chance points. The Sun Devils also outrebounded the Gauchos 35 to 32.
“When shots aren’t going in, that means there’s a lot misses,” Jacobsen said. “You got to find a way to put points on the board too.”
One of the Sun Devils struggling to find his stroke is junior guard Andre Spight, who tallied eight points on 3-for-11 from the field and 3-for-10 from three-point land. However, Spight sank a crucial corner three to tie the game at 68 with 34 seconds remaining.
“We know what he’s (Spight) capable of doing,” Hurley said. “It just hasn’t always been there this year, and he’s finding his way as guys in their first year sometimes do.”
A peculiar outlier down the stretch of the game was Hurley’s decision to sit starting sophomore point guard Tra Holder and opt to go with Justice running the offense. Holder struggled on the day after a nice showing in Brooklyn, scoring just five points (but going 0-for-5 from the field) and one assist.
“You kind of go by feel and the type of offensive game that your players are having, and we went with more guys that are threats shooting the ball against their zone,” Hurley said.
Winning ugly isn’t ever a desirable trait for a team, but with the Gauchos shooting 50 percent from the field and going a perfect 8-for-8 on free throws, it was exactly the kind of win ASU will take heading into a brutal portion of its nonconference schedule.
The Sun Devils travel to Creighton, host Texas A&M and then hit the road again to play UNLV and No. 1 Kentucky. While playing a tight game against a mid-major opponent may not be the best-case scenario, winning those games – naturally – is more satisfying than the latter for Hurley.
“We’re being challenged,” Hurley said. “We’re in a lot of close games. We’re fighting hard. We were resilient in the last three minutes and overcame a deficit and made plays to win, so that makes you feel good as a coach that your players have that quality that they’re building.”
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org