TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State Sun Devils knew they’d have to overcome some obstacles if they wanted to knock off No. 7 Arizona in the regular-season finale on Saturday. Injuries and transfers have limited them to roughly a seven-man rotation, and their thin frontcourt isn’t exactly a recipe for success against a big team like the Wildcats.
Neither is allowing a 14-3 run to start the second half.
That last hurdle was simply too big for the Devils to clear, as they fell to their in-state rivals by a final of 73-60 at Wells Fargo Arena.
Arizona State made a strong push early on, going on an 8-1 run to take a 28-27 lead with 3:42 remaining in the first half. They maintained that tight scoreline heading into halftime, down by the thinnest of margins, 30-29, at the break.
Normally, that might be considered a success for the underdog. And, to a certain extent, it was. But the Wildcats looked a little out of sorts in the first. In many ways, it felt like the Devils needed to carry a lead into halftime of this one.
In fact, the Wildcats’ most dangerous player barely saw the court at all early on. Laurie Markkanen got into foul trouble less than three and a half minutes in and managed just one point and four minutes of playing time in the entire first half.
The 7-foot Finn made up for it in the second, though, playing 19 of the possible 20 minutes, while finishing one rebound shy of a double-double and generally just being a disruptive force on both ends of the court. Arizona looked more like one of the Pac-12’s top teams as a result, jumping out of halftime on that 14-3 run to open up a 44-32 lead.
From there, both sides essentially traded buckets. Anytime the Devils showed signs of making a push, though, the Wildcats answered. And whenever Arizona scuffled on offense, Markkanen was there to slam the door on ASU.
The Sun Devils’ lack of depth has put a strain on the main rotation players and made Bobby Hurley’s job tougher for the majority of this season and it certainly didn’t help matters today either. Only seven Arizona State players saw the floor, and one of them — Andre Adams — played a grand total of one minute.
Still, holding the Wildcats to just 73 points represented the sort of defensive effort it would take to win a game like this. Problem is, the shots just weren’t falling for the Devils.
“If you would’ve told me we would’ve kept them with, like, 70 points — with our offensive power — I would’ve said we had a good chance,” Sun Devils guard Kodi Justice pointed out afterward.
“They made us struggle a little and not make shots that we usually make. But I feel like, if we come out with our ‘A’ game on offense, we have a chance to win this game.”
Justice led all ASU scorers with 17 points, hitting four of his six three-pointers. Torian Graham came in second with 15 points, connecting on 3-of-9 from behind the arc. And he shared Justice’s view on what went wrong for the Devils
“All night, I don’t feel like, as a team, we played as well as we could on offense,” the senior explained. “I honestly think we did enough on defense. But we didn’t play well on offense. I’d just say it was our offense tonight.”
Outside of that duo, nobody else reached double figures for Arizona State. Even worse, the rest of the team combined to hit just two three-pointers, and Tra Holder — the only current Sun Devil to play in a victory over the Wildcats — made just one field goal all night while attempting nine shots.
Arizona didn’t shoot lights out either, hitting just 39 percent of the shots they attempted, but they made 44.4 percent in the second half when ASU was going a meager 8-for-28 (28.6 percent). Meanwhile, the Wildcats made more free throws (23) than the Sun Devils even attempted (20).
On top of all that, the Wildcats predictably won the battle up front. With a trio of players hovering right around 7-feet tall, it’s not exactly a shock that they’d outrebound ASU, but the 50-to-27 differential on the boards simply proved too much for the Devils to overcome.
Arizona State (14-17; 7-11) will likely play in the first game of the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday in Las Vegas. Pending results from around the conference later today, there’s a decent chance they’ll draw Stanford in the opening round. The games will be played at T-Mobile Arena for the first time ever.
Arizona (27-4; 16-2) won’t have to suit up until the quarterfinals on Thursday, as their top-four finish in the conference earned them a first-round bye.