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ASU’s at-large chances nearly crushed in loss to Washington State

Arizona State forward Zylan Cheatham, left, looks on during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The metaphor to what happened with Arizona State’s at-large NCAA Tournament hopes was pretty obvious. ASU entered Thursday near the bubble, but one bad trip-up the rest of the year in an inferior conference could pop their postseason hopes.

A loss to Washington State certainly would qualify as a burst bubble, if not a bursting fire hydrant.

The Sun Devils’ post-rivalry hangover a week after head coach Bobby Hurley beat Arizona for the first time in three-plus seasons lingered through a bloody 91-70 loss to Washington State Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena.

“It’s a pretty damaging loss for us,” Hurley admitted.

Reminder: the Cougars entered the game with a NET rating of 230th in the nation and had lost 11 of their last 12 — their only win in that span came against a 5-17 Cal team. Arizona State opened Thursday 61st in NET, in no position to withstand such a disappointment on its resume.

The defeat echoed of earlier losses to Princeton, Stanford and Utah. It blunted the importance of resume-building wins over then-No. 1 Kansas, Mississippi State and Utah State.

Historically, falling to WSU at home was a momentous thing in itself.

The symptoms of the Sun Devils’ problems were many.

Like Arizona’s 50-percent three-point shooting a week prior, the Cougars took advantage of ASU players being out of position on rotations or simply not contesting well enough. WSU went 9-of-17 from three-point range in the first half and led 50-33 through 20 minutes.

Arizona State missed its first 17 three-pointers until an attempt by Luguentz Dort, who led ASU with 22 points, midway through the second half finally dropped, breaking Washington State’s largest lead of 25 points. ASU got no closer than 13 points, and the Cougars finished 12-of-30 from deep as the Sun Devils failed to rally.

“I don’t think we overlooked them. I just think we didn’t play well. It’s kind of tough when you dig yourself a hole like that and you’re playing catchup the entire game,” ASU forward Zylan Cheatham said.

What’s more: the Sun Devils finished with 11 total assists to 17 turnovers, shooting 34 percent against a WSU that for the year had allowed opponents to hit 54 percent, ranking 341st out of 353 teams that College Sports Reference tracks.

ASU lost too many 50-50 balls, missed 14 of 33 free throw attempts and allowed WSU leading-scorer Robert Franks to score 34 points.

“It was pretty easy to see why people view him as a potential NBA candidate next year and why he leads the conference in scoring. We didn’t have any answers for him,” Hurley said.

“You can’t give that type of space to a guy like Franks, who had it going. I think there was one possession where Rob Evans had a wide open three and he shot an air-ball and they went back the other way and Franks buried a three.”

Hurley called the difference a result of a few free throws and such swing plays.

But no, he didn’t see it coming. A hangover from the win over their rivals?

“I don’t know if that’s what got us,” Cheatham said. “I think we got some really good looks … that just didn’t fall for us tonight. That can’t be the reason you lose. (You got to) rely on your defense.”

Hurley searched for answers in his postgame press conference. He could only think that the Sun Devils didn’t get the most out of practice since the win over Arizona after point guard Remy Martin suffered another ankle sprain over the weekend, taking him out of several practices. Martin went 3-for-13 for nine points and eight assists Thursday, a week after scoring a career-high 31.

Cheatham, who finished with eight points and 16 rebounds, also missed a practice with strep throat since the Arizona win.

ASU had already been without reserve forward Taeshon Cherry (concussion symptoms) and lost center Romello White mid-game after he banged knees with another player, Hurley said.

Even with the conference-leading Washington Huskies (19-4, 10-0 Pac-12) incoming and another shot at Arizona to end the regular season, adding a signature conference win to make up for the Sun Devils’ worst performance of the year doesn’t appear on the horizon.

But the Sun Devils have no reason to either buy into that sentiment or place effort in discrediting whatever any NET ratings or a tournament committee might believe about them at this moment or down the road.

“It’s so easy to take a loss like this and kind of inherit the mentality of everybody around you, that this is the worst thing in the world,” Cheatham said. “Although it appears that way right now, when we wake up in the morning, it’s another day.”

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