DAN BICKLEY

Loss to in-state rival Arizona tough to swallow for Bobby Hurley, ASU

Dec 31, 2022, 4:45 PM | Updated: Jan 2, 2023, 10:42 am
Arizona State Sun Devils Head Coach Bobby Hurley on the sidelines during the first half of a Colleg...
Arizona State Sun Devils Head Coach Bobby Hurley on the sidelines during the first half of a College Basketball game between the San Diego Toreros and the Arizona State Sun Devils on December 18th, 2022, at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, AZ. (Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Bobby Hurley stared at the box score, attempting to process a nine-point loss to the fifth-ranked team in the nation. His defense held the Wildcats to 69 points, well below their average. His offense made just 3-of-27 shots beyond the three-point line, the obvious saboteur in a showdown of Pac-12 contenders.

You could almost hear his thoughts.

If only a few of those shots had fallen.

There were reasons to feel gutted. There were reasons to feel optimistic after a spirited second-half comeback. And then the Arizona State head coach just blurted out the truth.

“It always hurts to lose to Arizona, for sure,” he said.

Pedigree beat potential on Saturday afternoon at Desert Financial Arena, as it often does in this one-sided rivalry between an elite basketball school and a program that feels close to a long-awaited breakthrough under the guidance/persistence of Hurley.

Arizona raced to a 45-28 halftime lead, dismantling the Sun Devils and leading to a hostile arena takeover from their passionate fan base. It was the kind of clinic that reinforced Arizona’s dramatic resurgence under head coach Tommy Lloyd.

The Wildcats play up-tempo basketball. They space the floor. They share the ball. They deploy a European style reinforced by the recruitment of many impressive foreign-born players. They look far more like the teams Lute Olson built during his reign of domination in Tucson than what Sean Miller produced before his exile.

Lloyd has turned out to be a home-run hire for Arizona. Smart basketball people on the West coast insist there would be no powerhouse at Gonzaga if not for Lute Olson’s Wildcats. And now Gonzaga has returned the favor in the shape of a former Zags assistant coach who has quickly returned Arizona to national prominence.

Lloyd likes his team to play free, to figure things out on their own. He rarely calls a timeout in moments of duress. And that brings us to the second half of Saturday’s game.

Whatever Hurley said at halftime clearly had an impact. The Sun Devils returned to the court and promptly defended at an elite level. They pressed after made baskets. They went on an 18-4 run that turned their arena into a madhouse, drowning out the Arizona faithful. They made it difficult for the Wildcats to get a shot off on most possessions, bottling up a team that had been averaging 90 points per game.

They generated their offense through their pit bull brand defense, producing a staggering sequence of turnovers and dunks. They exposed the only flaw on Arizona’s roster, the kind of scorer who can create buckets on command and stop droughts in progress.

ASU even made Lloyd call timeout to regroup.

But after closing within two points, it all slipped away from Hurley’s crew, a team that reverted to missing three-point shots and losing its first Pac-12 game of the season.

In the end, there was reason for both fan bases to feel good about their New Year’s Eve showdown. Arizona fans left with trolling rights, honking their horns on their way out of Tempe. ASU fans took solace in a long stretch of second-half basketball when the Sun Devils truly smothered a juggernaut. And if Hurley’s club can bottle and duplicate their second-half performance and stack home wins against Washington State and Washington in the coming week, they will be in great shape entering 2023.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7.

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Loss to in-state rival Arizona tough to swallow for Bobby Hurley, ASU