(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
A player who shoots 3-14 from the field wouldn’t be the expected choice for hero of the game, but Tra Holder boldly defied expectations, making the clutch play that helped the Arizona State Sun Devils earn a 78-77 win over the Colorado Buffaloes on Thursday.
Holder’s heroics came on a pair of free throws, which he earned as he heaved the potential game -winner towards the rim from an offensive rebound. The makes from the charity stripe gave the Devils a one-point lead with 1.6 on the clock.
“I shot a lot of free throws last night because I haven’t been shooting as well as I want to,” Holder said. “I got a routine in my head and I just stuck with it.” Holder said he spent about 30 minutes after practice the day before working on the line.
As has become the norm for the Sun Devils, they shot a ton of threes. ASU finished 10-26 from the behind the arc, once again relying big on their ranged attack. The Buffaloes weren’t shy from deep either, going 5-22 from the perimeter.
Both teams started rough from the floor. Colorado opened the action with a three but then missed its next six shots, while ASU started out 0-5 before putting up points.
Overall, of the first 14 shots taken in the game, nine were threes and only three successful. The Buffaloes found their mojo first, scoring on three straight possessions to take a 9-7 lead.
The Sun Devils then brought in what would be their secret weapon for the first half. Freshman big Jethro Tshisumpa came in and gave ASU a pair of blocks, and the Sun Devils went on an 8-0 run.
The first half then morphed into a shootout. ASU hit 11 of 16 field goals but Colorado responded with a 9 of 11 outburst to keep the game close. The Devils did not have a double-digit scorer at the break, but Obinna Oleka had a strong nine points and five boards, and the Sun Devils had a 41-35 lead at halftime.
After the break, the Sun Devils top scorers eventually got going. ASU had five scorers reach double-digits, led by Torian Graham and Evans, each with 18.
Meanwhile, senior forward Xavier Johnson gave the Sun Devils a nightmare on defense. He put up 13 points on 6-7 shooting, looking strong towards the end of the first half until things got crazy.
After Tshisumpa tried to chase down a block after a whistle, he collided with Johnson. A large scrum ensued between the teams, resulting in ejections for Johnson and Tshisumpa and a technical foul on Oleka.
The Buffaloes absorbed the ejection of their leading scorer thanks to the heroics of senior guard Derrick White, who torched ASU for 35 points including 25 in the second half.
The Sun Devils worked hard to keep Colorado at bay, but a 6 of 8 run and a scoring drought for the home squad left ASU trailing by one with about 10 minutes left. The threes stopped falling and Colorado continued to test the Devils defense at every turn.
The two teams remained relatively close in most facets. ASU had 10 turnovers to Colorado’s 12. Despite having two assists on their first nine field goals, the Devils finished with 11 assists, while the Buffaloes had 16.
Both sides traded blow for blow as the clock wound down, never quite being able to crack a clear path to victory.
“There were three different times when they took a lead on us and our guys had a response” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “It was a very, very good, across the board, unified win.”
The game went to the wire, with the Devils leading 76-75 with a minute left. After an offensive board and a timeout, White dropped a tough layup, and the Buffaloes had the lead with 17 seconds left.
The Devils were suffocated on the final possession, and it looked over after Torian Graham’s pull-up rimmed out, but Tra Holder had different plans. He secured the rebound under the rim and tried a last second heave, finding no basket but getting a foul.
Evans described his mindset as “Please God let Tra make these free throws.”
He calmly hit the two free throws, and the Devils ended the night with a mob surrounding Holder and booming cheers from ASU faithful.
“I just know that last year, when I didn’t have a good game, I brought myself down and probably brought the energy of the team down,” Holder said. “This time I tried to stay and bring energy and keep complimenting the team.”
The Devils (9-7) picked up their second Pac-12 win, and their first on home court. They’ll have only a day off before Utah comes to town on Saturday.