TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State’s offense was reeling.
For a stretch spanning the 9:47 and 2:34 marks of the second half, the Sun Devils could only muster one field goal and three free throws. They trailed the USC Trojans by 10.
Yet, when it came to the pressure of the moment, USC perhaps felt the weight of three losses in a row — granted, to the Pac-12’s three best teams — coming into Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday. When that happened, they started making mistakes.
Arizona State forced two key turnovers, and USC shot itself in the foot with two missed free throws late to blow an 81-71 lead in the final 2:34 and fall to the Sun Devils 83-82.
“Just fought through a lot of adversity throughout the course of the game,” ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said. “Once we got these core five guys playing the way we’ve been playing, we feel if we hang in there defensively we can be competitive.
“A few weeks or days have been taken off my life. But what a great feeling.”
The five starters for ASU all had their moments to come through with a comeback.
Shannon Evans hit a three after USC’s leading scorer, Bennie Boatwright, turned it over, cutting ASU’s deficit from 10 to seven with 2:21 to go.
USC wing Elijah Stewart’s missed a front-end of a one-and-one with 23 seconds left, leading to a Kodi Justice three, bringing the Sun Devils to within 82-81.
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) February 27, 2017
Then, ASU pressed on the USC inbound with 14 seconds left. Torian Graham’s steal and Tra Holder’s drawn foul on a drive put him on the foul stripe.
“We went to the press and they turned the ball over two or three times. We were kind of waiting, waiting for the moment to use it,” Justice said.
And that’s when Holder, needing to make both foul shots to help ASU take an 83-82 lead, remembered some unkind words from an ASU fan that he couldn’t repeat.
“I actually wasn’t thinking about the free throws,” Holder said. “Somebody had said something to me in the stands. I was just ready to celebrate and kind of prove him wrong. I knew I was going to make it.”
USC had six seconds to get off a game-winning shot after Holder sunk both free throws for the lead, but Boatwright’s three clanged. Obinna Oleka, who added 18 points and 10 boards, claimed the last rebound of the game.
Indeed, it was a true team effort.
Despite the need for a comeback, Arizona State started the game on a torrid pace to put itself in a position to do so.
Justice, who scored 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including six threes, drilled three triples from the left wing as ASU scored its first 12 points from behind the arc.
A trip to the bench couldn’t cool Justice off. He pulled up for a fourth triple from the opposite wing and on the next play drove and hit Ramon Vila with a wraparound to give Arizona State a 28-19 lead with less than 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
Kodi Justice isn’t slowing down!
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) February 26, 2017
The dead-eye shooting wasn’t Justice alone. The Sun Devils hit 10 of their 16 first-half threes with Oleka drilling three, and Holder and Evans adding three collectively. USC still led 48-47 at halftime by keeping pace from deep.
The Trojans hit 8-for-15 from deep by halftime and were shooting 68 percent overall — when they weren’t turning the ball over eight times. USC shot 69 percent in the first half but couldn’t keep that pace, shooting 44 in the second half.
In part, ASU’s victory came about because the defense ramped up. So did USC’s — the Sun Devils shot 39 percent in the second — but somehow, Hurley’s starting five players kept it close and even found the right plays down the stretch to pull out the victory. That is, the victory that 150 seconds earlier seemed to be in the Trojans’ bag.
“Those five guys, they compete together, they’re a unified group,” Hurley said of his starting unit. “I think we outrebounded USC, which for us lately is a miracle. It just shows how hard they’re fighting together.
“They’re all, like, talented players. If they were all playing maybe in their natural positions all the time and the roster was perfect, they’d be doing even better,” Hurley added. “They’re beyond the point of giving in or giving up.”
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