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ASU seeks revenge, Arizona at guard in middle of rivalry back-to-back

Head coaches Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats and Bobby Hurley of the Arizona State Sun Devils greet each other before the NCAAB game at Desert Financial Arena on January 21, 2021 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Rarely do two Pac-12 teams face each other one game after the other.

Even less often are those two teams rivals.

A scheduling change moved the Arizona State Sun Devils’ and Arizona Wildcats’ second scheduled game of the year from the end of the regular season to four days after their first meeting. Following a buzzer-beating win for Arizona on Thursday night in Tempe, it’s hard to imagine that their Monday rematch in Tucson could produce more fireworks.

The anticipation heading into it, however, couldn’t be higher, especially for the Sun Devils.

“It’s disappointing, but at the same time we play on Monday, so we get revenge on Monday,” Arizona State freshman Josh Christopher said Thursday after his team fell 84-82. “We just got to put what’s in the past in the past. That clock already hit zero-zero-zero. We got to just lock back in, watch film, then play on Monday.

“Especially after how it went today, yeah, I’m looking forward it … just got to get our payback.”

Sun Devils head coach Bobby Hurley told his players after the game they did enough to win, and he seconded that in his postgame interview with reporters.

Arizona State (4-7, 1-4 Pac-12) overcame 12 first-half turnovers and found a rhythm in the second half. The Sun Devils held a seven-point lead with less than five minutes to play and a five-point lead under the 2:00 mark.

“I thought we did a fairly good job defensively all things considered,” Hurley said. “We’re going to give up some threes … We had to try to support the paint and support our frontcourt in the lane.

“But we rebounded well, we had good paint coverage. The way Arizona does rebound, thought we did a great job of hanging in there in the paint.”

Hurley’s team’s strategy — walling off the interior and accepting that Arizona would hit some threes — eventually began paying off against the bigger Wildcats.

Surely that success seeped into Hurley’s mind, adding to his frustration after point guard Remy Martin did not draw a foul call on a potential game-winning drive.

Arizona went the other way after the no-call, and Wildcats point guard James Akinjo found — intentionally or not — freshman big Azuolas Tubelis under the basket for the game-winning layup. Akinjo said it was a pass and not a shot, but the game book ruled it a missed Akinjo three and putback by Tubelis.

In any case, ASU had enough success to keep most of its gameplan for another shot at Arizona on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats (11-3, 5-3 Pac-12) are on notice that maybe they stole one, correct no-call on Martin’s drive or not.

“Our defense is not as good as our offense,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “We’re hard at work to make it better, it has to get better, but sometimes you just have to figure out a way to get a win almost in spite of our defense.

“That is really the story of tonight’s game. ASU had their way with us, especially in the second half. Hopefully, we can be better when we play Monday.”

Both teams on Thursday night allowed better than 46% shooting overall and 52% shooting from deep. Each team hit 11 three-pointers.

The rebounding differential, 35-33, was also tight. So it wasn’t surprising that the scoring evened out until the final second.

For the Sun Devils, Monday probably couldn’t come soon enough. They want to end a five-game losing streak that’s only been buoyed by canceled games due to coronavirus issues.

For the Wildcats, finding a sense of urgency in practices over the weekend is the hope.

“You win, it’s a thrilling feeling,” Miller said of the rivalry. “You lose, it’s a terrible feeling, and that’s what we have to guard against because, unlike other games in this series, the next game we play is ASU. It’s going to be on us pretty quick on Monday. There’s a number of things we have to be better at when we play them on Monday.

“We’re all part of something that’s bigger than our own programs,” Miller added. “I think it’s a decision made by the Pac-12 office that makes a lot of sense, especially in ASU’s case to give them that last week to recapture some games that they’ve lost would be very, very big for them. We want the most teams in our conference to get into postseason play, and anything that we can do in terms of scheduling and cooperating to make that happen, we’ll do it.”


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