TEMPE — Desert Financial Arena was pretty evenly split between red and gold as fans gathered to watch the No. 6 Arizona Wildcats tip-off against the scrappy yet unranked Sun Devils in Tempe on Friday night.
Coming down to the final seconds, Arizona State was able to hang on to the lead to pull out an 81-77 win over Arizona following an atypical performance from the Cats.
“It was a tough game,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said. “I give credit to ASU. I think they handed it to us.”
“Obviously, UofA is a tremendous team, so I am so happy for our team and our program,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner-Thorne said.
Things got off to a fast start, with ASU opening up with a three from Jade Loville right out of the gate.
The Devils were pushing the offensive tempo early and were nailing a number of their shots, standing toe-to-toe to exchange blows but getting the better of the Cats early.
It was a more aggressive style of play on both sides of the ball than the Devils have been bringing to the court recently, which appeared to catch Arizona off guard. At the end of the first quarter, the Sun Devils snagged a 25-22 lead.
“From the get go, they had way more intensity, a way better sense of urgency,” Barnes said.
“The thing CTT told us was that we have to start with a punch,” ASU forward Mael Gilles said. “That’s how you start a game. … We just knew we had to come out with a punch and make a statement on the court, because it’s our home court and we take it personal.”
From there, things slowed down a bit to start the second quarter, as the first bucket didn’t come until nearly a minute and a half in when Cate Reese was finally able to put it up for two. However, the Sun Devils had an answer with Loville hitting another shot from behind the arc.
“When Love starts well, she’s tough to guard,” Turner-Thorne said. “She just is one of those incredible scorers who can make tough shots and get you buckets.”
Arizona State continued building off the momentum, jumping out to a 34-24 lead with 5:55 left before the half and forcing Barnes to call a timeout. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the timeout did little to put out the fire ignited inside the Devils at this point, as Taya Hanson drilled a shot from downtown and ultimately led Barnes to call yet another timeout.
“It took me calling a timeout and yelling, which I normally don’t yell, or just being intense for us to play defense,” Barnes said. “That’s just not who we are, and that’s not my expectation and standard for this team.”
Reese was able to get a bucket and a whistle coming out of the timeout in a hope to start generating some energy on the offense. It was clear at this point the Cats were starting to get frustrated on the court and started stepping up their defensive play and utilizing their size, but not before Loville hammered home another one from behind the arc in traffic.
At the half, Arizona State was up 42-34 over Arizona. Two extremely telling stats were the differentials in rebounding and three-point shooting. In the first 20 minutes, the Sun Devils were crashing the boards, racking up 23 rebounds to the Wildcats 10. Additionally, Arizona State was five-for-six from behind the arc going into the half, compared to Arizona’s zero-for-five.
“[Boxing out] is a focus for us, so if you can’t box out, you’re not focused,” Barnes said. “Yes, there’s technique to it, but it’s an effort thing.”
Bendu Yeaney opened up the third quarter with the first bucket, hoping to set the tone for the second half. However, Arizona State was able to score off back-to-back steals, jumping out to a 49-37 lead and forcing Barnes to call a timeout with 7:13 remaining in the quarter.
From there, the Wildcats were able to slowly but surely start working their way back out of the hole, with Sam Thomas hitting the first three of the game for the Wildcats with around 4:00 remaining in the third.
Arizona looked to continue building off the momentum, but Arizona State was still in control of the game as the teams continued to exchange shots. At the end of three, the Devils were up 61-52.
Reese was fouled hard to start the fourth quarter, which the officials determined to be intentional, sending her to the floor where she was down for a few minutes to recover. While Reese’s absence on the court impacted the Wildcats, the two free throws off her foul ended up being what gave the Cats a fighting chance.
As Arizona continued pushing, a three from Shaina Pellington cut ASU’s lead to 65-62, as “UofA” chants erupted inside DFA. Another three from Thomas eventually cut the lead to 68-67, and Pellington was able to tie it up at 68 at the line.
With just over four minutes remaining, Reese returned to the game, where she immediately drilled a three to give the Wildcats a lead of the game since the first quarter. Unfortunately for Arizona, a call shortly after that against her, combined with a technical assessed after to Helena Pueyo (who slammed the ball to the court) allowed Arizona State to reclaim a 76-73 lead.
“The technical was what killed us,” Barnes said. “That was a four-point swing. They made four free throws and got the ball off of that.”
From there, it was a foul battle until the end. Arizona State knew they had to stay together, keep communicating and buckle down defensively and pull out the win.
“We knew no matter what happened in the game, we had to stay together and keep punching,” Hanson said. “I felt it from every single one of my teammates, that we were taking that game.”
Barnes noted the decision to put a shot up with 17 seconds left on the clock, trailing by only one, was yet another uncharacteristic mistake.
“You don’t shoot with 17 seconds left, that is a basketball knowledge thing,” Barnes said.
Breaking down the stats, it’s easy to see where things went wrong for Arizona in three distinct areas.
Struggling to shoot threes, the Wildcats made only four of their 14 attempts, or 28.6-percent. The Devils, on the other hand, hit six of 11 for 54.5 percent.
Arizona also wasn’t very aggressive when it came to crashing the boards, allowing Arizona State to out-rebound them 42-27. Finally, the curtain of distraction must have worked for the Sun Devils, as the Wildcats were only 23 for 35 from the line. Their rivals countered by hitting 31 of their 34 shots from the stripe.
“In every statistical category, they were extremely above their average, and I think we never responded,” Barnes said. “Things that we’re usually pretty good at we were not good at today, and we lost. We deserved to lose.”
Discussing her team’s performance further, Barnes said the low number of assists from her team is indicative of the quality of offensive play they displayed.
“An indication of poor offense to me is only 10 assists,” Barnes said. “We’re not a team that should have only 10 assists, not with the way that we score. So 10 assists is an indication we aren’t sharing the ball.”
Pellington led things on the court for the Wildcats, posting 30 points, two rebounds, five assists and two steals. Meanwhile for the Sun Devils, Loville had 27 points, eight rebounds and an assist.
“We have more offensive talent, we have more defensive talent, and they handed it to us in every single way,” Barnes said. “We couldn’t guard them. We went into a zone, we’re not really a zone team, and we couldn’t guard them and they hit shots. They just wanted it better than us.”
The Wildcats will return to McKale Center on Sunday at noon when they will host the Sun Devils in search of redemption.
Playing the same team twice in a three-day span is grueling, but the Wildcats hope they’ve got the Devils’ number now. ASU is riding high right now after sweeping the Oregon schools last week before the taking down a top-10 team.
Arizona, on the contrary, will be looking to get the jump early in an effort to even the series.
“We’re gonna rebound,” Barnes said. “We aren’t gonna play like this. You won’t see the same stats from who’s gonna play on the floor, and if that means we’re gonna play different people then we are, because this is unacceptable. … If we’re gonna lose, it’s gonna be a different way. It won’t just be laying down.”
“I do think that Tucson could possibly be the toughest environment now in the Pac-12 with that crowd and everything they’ve got going,” Turner-Thorne said. “They’ve got a lot of confidence there. It will be a fun challenge.”
NOTE: Reserve post player Ariyah Copeland did not make the trip to Tempe. She was not in attendance for last weekend’s game against Oregon State because of a migraine headache, according to Barnes.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07