The roughly five-hour redeye flight from Anchorage to Phoenix was looking to be a celebration of a tournament championship for the ASU men’s basketball team.
Holding a six-point lead with just six minutes to play, the Great Alaska Shootout championship game was in the Sun Devils’ control.
Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
St. John’s used a six-point possession to turn its deficit into a tie game, and the Red Storm’s pressure defense controlled the Sun Devils the rest of the way en route to 67-58 victory over ASU.
The first half was arguably the Sun Devils’ best of the young season, especially on the defensive end. ASU held SJU to just 26 percent shooting from the field and took a 30-20 halftime lead.
First year Red Storm coach Steve Lavin turned up the defensive intensity following the intermission, switching to a 1-2-2 zone and a full court press.
ASU couldn’t handle SJU’s pressure in the press and on the ball and coughed up the basketball 11 times in the second half to the Red Storm, leading to a lot of easy baskets.
“It was a tale of two halves,” ASU assistant coach Lamont Smith said in his postgame radio interview. “If you look at the first half, I think we did a good job defensively, the second half they shot 64 percent and 45 percent from three.”
The main reason for the increased shooting percentage in the second half for the Red Storm was the easy looks they were getting off turnovers.
“I think we gave them quite a few one-on-zero, two-on-zero [shots] because of turnovers,” Smith said.
The critical stretch came when ASU led 51-45 with 6:18 remaining in the game.
After a foul on ASU freshman center Jordan Bachynski, SJU senior guard Paris Horne converted just one of his two free throws, but senior guard Malik Boothe grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled by ASU sophomore guard Trent Lockett.
Boothe also made just one of his two free throws, but Horne was there to tip in the miss.
SJU sophomore guard Malik Stith then stole the inbounds pass and scored. In all, it was a six-point possession that tied the game and completely changed the momentum.
After ASU led 49-42 with 6:58 left on the clock, SJU outscored the Sun Devils 25-9 the rest of the way to claim the tournament crown.
The Sun Devils were led in scoring by senior guard Ty Abbott, who scored 22 points on six three pointers. Lockett added 10.
ASU got to the championship game by winning on Thursday and then again on Friday.
On Thursday, the Sun Devils used a late 13-0 run to pull away from Houston Baptist and defeat the Huskies, 73-55.
Lockett led the way with 18 points, while freshman forward Kyle Cain added 13 points and 17 rebounds. Fellow freshman Keala King also had 13 points, while senior forward Rihards Kuksiks chipped in 12.
In the semifinal on Friday, Lockett’s layup with 8.4 seconds left lifted ASU to a 59-58 victory over Weber State. The sophomore finished with 24 points, tying his career high that he set in the season opener.
Senior guard Jamelle McMillan scored a season-high 16 points, with four rebounds, four assists and four steals against WSU.
Despite letting the championship slip away, there were positives to take out of the weekend.
“We are starting to find out a lot more about our basketball team, guys we can use,” Smith said. “We can build on this.”
Prior to their flight back to Phoenix, Abbott got sick in the Anchorage airport and had to be taken by paramedics to a local hospital.
ASU head coach Herb Sendek and associate head coach Dedrique Taylor stayed behind with Abbott while the rest of the team returned home.
The senior guard was treated for dehydration and was released from the hospital to return home on Sunday.
Abbott missed Thursday’s victory over HBU due to the knee injury he suffered against Alabama-Birmingham, but returned to action on Friday.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org