TEMPE – Arizona brought some toothpicks to a fork fight here at Wells Fargo … and nearly pulled off what would have been an inspiring win over host Arizona State.
Instead, the fork won and in overtime – no less – in what was a 95-88 defeat for its third straight and fourth in five games.
How else do you describe it? I hadn’t seen an Arizona team play this inspired in one-plus seasons. Arizona played without its star guard Brandon Williams and had junior center Chase Jeter at about 50 percent healthy, Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
And yet, Arizona had a chance.
Heck, there was a point there in the first half – and the second half – when you looked on the bench and you saw the names of Lee, Doutrive and Barcello. Hardly murderers row. And yet, Arizona was within striking distance.
Strangely at striking distance.
Well, until Arizona ran out of gas and/or answers to a team that couldn’t miss in overtime. Or so it seemed because Arizona couldn’t hit a shot or free throws to keep it in the game in OT.
Heck, who would have thought Arizona had a chance to keep it that close going into the game? You didn’t know if Jeter was going to play, given he missed a day of practice earlier in the week. And, Williams was out for the entire game.
Still, Miller, always intense no matter the circumstances, all but disagreed when I asked if there was any consolation in how tough they played. Maybe the word should have been inspired. Still, Miller wanted no part of it.
Moral victories? Sorry, those don’t work.
“I don’t think we played tough at all,” said Miller, going into his I-go- to-keep-this-team-up-for-the-rest -of-the-season speech. “I thought ASU was the tougher team, emotionally energized team.”
Clearly, this wasn’t last week’s UA team we saw in Southern California. That was an uninspired, poor-shooting team . Thursday night at Wells Fargo, in front of an ESPN audience and mostly ASU crowd, Arizona looked like it wanted to be here.
Hell, if there was a time Arizona needed a gut-check game it was Thursday night. It answered the bell and then some. Let me say this too: if last year’s UA team played anything like UA’s team did on Thursday night it would have made it to the Final Four.
And, well, we all know how that all ended.
To me, Thursday’s near-hit on an athletic ASU team gives Arizona hope. Anything and everything will work.
Yet, Miller said his team wasn’t good enough – and of course it wasn’t – to win the game because of something he’s been known for, well, forever: defense.
“You can’t pick and choose to play defense,” he said “And the second half was bad and Arizona State deserves a lot of credit for making it bad.”
He said earlier that , “It’s tough when you can’t get a defensive rebound and it’s tough when you struggle to keep those guys in front off the dribble. To their credit, they made some tough shots.”
Remy Martin looked like Damon Stoudamire most of the game, saving ASU’s game with a 31-point effort. Seemingly, every shot he put up went in. Didn’t it seem that way.
“It was personal,” he said.
He had never beaten UA. Hell, Arizona was riding a six-game win streak over ASU. Miller had never lost to Bobby Hurley here or there (Tucson).
“It hasn’t sunk in in what this game means to me,” Hurley said.
We know what it means to Arizona – it can take away that it can play hard and inspired. It’ll need to next week vs. top-dawg Washington in McKale.
Pollyanna approach in saying Arizona played inspired in a game it had to? Of course, but it did. It just wasn’t good enough. It squandered a good shooting night from beyond the 3-point shooting line – 14 for 28 – and well there you have it.
“We haven’t had an offensive night like that scoring the ball and being efficient in a long time,” Miller said. “That should have been enough for us to leave with a road win. The defense was inept.”
Well, there was that …