No. 6 Arizona manages Arizona State comeback attempt for rivalry win

Feb 29, 2024, 12:16 AM | Updated: 12:51 am

KJ Lewis #5 of the Arizona Wildcats shoots against Shawn Phillips Jr. #9 and Kamari Lands #0 of the...

KJ Lewis #5 of the Arizona Wildcats shoots against Shawn Phillips Jr. #9 and Kamari Lands #0 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half at Desert Financial Arena on February 28, 2024 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

TEMPE — No. 6 Arizona separated itself from rival Arizona State early and then stayed solid enough in the second half to pick up an 85-67 victory on Wednesday to sweep the season series.

All five Wildcat starters were in double figures, which is nothing new for that group. Kylan Boswell was the top scorer with 17 points, Caleb Love added 16 and Oumar Ballo’s 14 points and 13 rebounds made up his eighth straight double-double.

Throughout the first half, there was a clear difference in shot quality. Arizona (22-6, 13-4) jumped out to a 14-2 lead for points in the paint just a little over 10 minutes in, which was a big part of jumping out to a 16-point lead. The Sun Devils (14-15, 8-10) did generate some open shots but the majority of them were ones the opposing defense was OK with giving up, as ASU’s five volume 3-point shooters all own percentages between 28-33%.

Boswell and Pelle Larsson did a great job finding the lanes to attack and threaten the defense. Arizona’s movement on and off the ball was crisp, an area where Larsson’s cutting really works wonders. A few minor lapses came in the back half of the first 20-minute period but nothing to let ASU back in it.

A loud Arizona contingent inspired an ASU home crowd that was already hyped to get even louder, creating a great environment immediately. That sort of washed away at points in the first half before Arizona State’s terrific resilience in the second half got everyone up and vocal once more.

After the Wildcats responded to an 8-0 ASU run to open the second half that cut the advantage to six, Arizona State again crept back in it. For the next 10-plus minutes of the second half, the Sun Devils were grinding through a great effort to drag this game so close to the danger zone for the Wildcats, where the score could get down to just one or two possessions and in “anything can happen” territory on the road with only a few minutes left.

But with just over six minutes remaining and Arizona up eight, the Sun Devils produced back-to-back bad shots that allowed Arizona to get uptempo and play off a miss. One of those resulted in a Love 3 and the other a Jaden Bradley free throw, increasing the Wildcats’ lead to a dozen with 5:08 remaining. It was just enough to avoid getting strapped into that roller coaster. Love drilled his fourth triple two minutes later and a Bradley steal set up a Keshad Johnson lob to all but wrap it up.

“We stayed poised, stayed calm, stayed together,” Bradley said. “(I) like games like that, close games kind of get us ready for the tournament and what’s next.”

The most impressive part of the win for the Wildcats was it was just the third game out of their 28 in which they’ve lost the battle on the free throw line. Arizona only attempted two in the first half and ended up 13-of-18 (72.2%) to ASU’s 18-for-25 (72%) mark. It would have been easy to lose a bit of composure within the atmosphere and not having the usual steady diet of instant offense at the foul line.

Boswell has had an up-and-down year and really needed a performance like that in a rivalry game to find a rhythm offensively.

“I know he’s been under the microscope a little bit and that’s what happens when you’re the point guard at Arizona,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “I thought he played exceptional tonight.”

Outside of one live ball turnover, Boswell’s decision-making was solid all night and he did a good job seeking out his shot.

“If I’m not open pass the ball, if I’m open let it fly,” Boswell said. “Whatever the game comes to me I just try to let it flow.”

“I always want Kylan to be aggressive,” Lloyd said. “I think Kylan’s playing with two of the best playmaking wings in the country in Caleb and Pelle, so when Kylan’s out there he doesn’t necessarily need to dominate the ball. … When he’s hunting catch-and-shoot shots he’s a really good player.”

Boswell was coming off a moment on the bench a game prior when Lloyd really got into him during a heated exchange, something Lloyd addressed by noting Boswell apologized while also saying Boswell didn’t even have to do that.

“A lot of people had their own opinions about the moment (but) nobody on the outside knows me and coach Lloyd’s real relationship,” Boswell said of it. “I was upset at myself. Sometimes you don’t want to hear the truth but after reflecting on it I realized of course he’s always going to be trying to get on me, he’s always going to support me and he always wants the best for me.”

Boswell did pick up four fouls midway through the second half, though, and Bradley once again closed the game over him, a somewhat regular occurrence in the last two months.

Bradley’s been a big-time spark plug off the bench defensively and plays with a downhill mentality offensively that brings a different dimension to the lead guard spot. Ironically enough, Arizona is pretty darn good with both on the floor, and Boswell said he thinks he plays his best ball when he’s out there with Bradley.

A deep Arizona run in the NCAA Tournament is highly unlikely without Boswell playing more like he did on Wednesday, and the balance between the two point guards has been something for Lloyd to figure out all year that will certainly loom over tight games in March.

Love provided eight rebounds, five assists and a steal to go with his 14 points. He has all but locked up Pac-12 Player of the Year honors.

Ballo’s double-double streak is two away from tying the school record. There are conveniently three regular season games left for him to break it.

Arizona State was led by Adam Miller’s 16 points and 15 more out of Frankie Collins.

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