TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arkansas-Little Rock played exactly as it needed to for more than 30 minutes, harassing Arizona State’s players into mistakes and missed shots.
Over the final nine minutes, the Trojans’ record-breaking season came unraveled.
Worn down by Arizona State’s constant pounding inside, UALR ended the best season in school history with a 57-54 loss to Arizona State after blowing a 16-point lead Monday night in the Greensboro Region of the NCAA Tournament.
“I felt like they were going to pound us the whole game with their size, and that was the difference in the game,” UALR coach Joe Foley said. “We just didn’t have enough energy to stay with it.
Arizona State (29-5), the region’s No. 3 seed, appeared to be headed toward an early exit in the NCAA Tournament after struggling against UALR’s quickness and defensive pressure.
The Sun Devils couldn’t get anything to fall, even from right under the rim, and were still down 13 with nine minutes left.
Arizona State clawed its way back by getting the ball in the paint, passing up shots along the perimeter to work the ball inside almost exclusively against the smaller Trojans.
The shots that didn’t fall earlier in the game started to drop and the constant pounding began to take a toll on UALR as the home crowd rallied around the Sun Devils.
Sophie Brunner put the Sun Devils up 53-52 on a putback with 54 seconds left, Kelsey Moos scored another basket inside and Elisha Davis blocked Alexius Dawn’s last-second 3-pointer to send the Sun Devils to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
Brunner had 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead Arizona State. Promise Amukamara added 17 points for the Sun Devils, who face Florida State in the regional semifinals in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Friday.
“We all believed. We just all believed,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne. “Before you know it, we’re banking in 40-foot 3-pointers and winning the game.”
Despite Arizona State’s rally, UALR (29-5) still seemed to be in control with just over 2 minutes left, leading 50-44.
Davis gave the Sun Devils hope and crushed UALR’s with the biggest shot of her career.
The junior guard struggled to get anything to fall most of the night, but made a big one when it counted, banking in a 3-pointer from well beyond the 3-point line with the shot clock winding down. The shot, which came with 2:11 left, kept the Sun Devils within three and brought the crowd to its feet.
“I thought that was the difference in the game,” Foley said. “If she hadn’t made that shot and we get the rebound, then it might have been a different outcome. That was huge right there.”
UALR (29-5) dominated the first half, using its quickness to force Arizona State into 11 turnovers while holding the Sun Devils to 6 of 28 from the floor. The Trojans were decent offensively in the first half, too, paced by leading scorer Taylor Gault.
Everything changed over the game’s final nine minutes.
The shots that were falling clanged away. Gault took four shots and scored two points after halftime, finishing with 10.
UALR’s motion offense also seemed to go nowhere, leading to a scoreless drought of 5 1-2 minutes that allowed Arizona State to rally.
The biggest difference was on the defensive end.
Despite struggling to get shots to fall inside, the Sun Devils continued to pound the ball inside against UALR. Once the Sun Devils got a few to fall and the fans got into the game, the Trojans had a hard time stopping them.
Arizona State made 15 of 28 shots in the second half and scored some of the game’s biggest baskets in the lane — outside of Davis’ long 3 — to end UALR’s record-breaking season with a disappointing loss.
Kaitlyn Pratt had 12 points to lead the Trojans. Kiera Clark and Ka’Nesheia Cobbins added 11 each.
“They were just determined,” Gault said. “We never gave up, we just let little things slip our minds, and they just came back and won.”
UALR: The Trojans went 2 for 10 from 3-point range. … Dawn, UALR’s starting point guard was 1 for 10 from the floor and missed all seven of her 3-point shots to finish with two points.
Arizona State: Amukamara made all three of her first-half shots while her teammates went a combined 3 for 25. … Arizona State had a 41-32 rebounding advantage, including 18 on the offensive glass.
UALR’s season is over after the Trojans set a school record for wins.
Arizona State will face Florida State in Friday’s regional semifinals in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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