For a team that finished 10th in the Pac-12 standings, it was all smiles in the tunnel of Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday.
The ASU men’s basketball team saved its best performance for its last opponent on the regular season schedule — which happened to be its in-state rival.
Everything came together for the Sun Devils (10-20, 6-12 Pac-12) against UA, despite 22 lead changes and 11 ties in the contest.
Junior guard Trent Lockett sunk two free throws with 20 seconds left to seal the 87–80 victory over the Wildcats (21-10, 12-6 Pac-12).
“We never go into a game not thinking we’re going to win, but today everybody really pulled together, played hard and we came out with a win,” Lockett said.
It took the Sun Devils the final two games to muster back-to-back wins for the first time this season. They were down 44–38 at halftime due to an 8–2 run in the final 78 seconds by UA, but ASU had arguably its best start to a second half this season. The Sun Devils went on a 7–0 run in the first 90 seconds and held UA to just two field goals in the first four minutes.
Junior guard Carrick Felix had five of the seven points to start the half. He was out of action last week due to a virus, but returned to practice this week and gradually returned to action. He said he wasn’t 100 percent Sunday and was noticeably coughing after the game, but still managed to drop 23 points in the contest.
He took just two 3-point shots, burying one. Felix scored most of his points attacking the paint and from the free throw line, where he was 8-of-9.
“I just thought his energy today was contagious for our team,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “He played to his strengths today and when he’s playing an energy game, he’s a good player.”
The Wildcats shot 48.1 percent in the game and answered nearly every ASU run in the second half. Senior guard Brendon Lavender buried back-to-back 3-point shots to tie the game at 65 with 7:13 left. Lavender finished with 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting, all of which were 3-point attempts.
UA was down four with 2:05 left when junior guard Chris Colvin fouled senior guard Kyle Fogg on a 3-point attempt. Fogg sunk three free throws to draw the Wildcats within one, and finished with a team-high 23 points.
On the next possession, ASU took two 30 second timeouts. The result was a designed 3-point attempt that was buried by freshman forward Jonathan Gilling. He had 21 points on 7-of-8 shooting.
“He took that shot in rhythm like he was Larry Bird,” Sendek said. “He just has a lot of ice water in his veins for a first-year player.”
The Sun Devils scored the last six points of the game from the charity stripe. ASU has been inconsistent at the line this season, just eighth in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage, but shot 22 of 24 on Sunday. They got in the bonus early in the second half and continued to attack the paint, where they scored 44 points.
ASU has also struggled with limiting its turnovers this season. Sendek set a benchmark all season that his team needed to get its turnovers to 12 or fewer.
The Sun Devils had just 10 turnovers in the game.
Lockett had the most turnovers on the team with three, but he also had his best performance since returning from his ankle injury. He had 21 points, seven boards, five assists and four steals.
“I thought there were a number of possessions where he just almost willed something good for us to happen,” Sendek said. “There’s a couple of possessions he made something really good out of almost nothing and just overpowered with his will.”
UA finished fourth in the conference standings, but the damage from this loss could affect its chances at making the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid. The Wildcats’ Ratings Percentage Index will be hurt from losing to the No. 250 team. They’ll likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament to get the automatic bid and get into the tournament.
While the Wildcats will get a first-round bye for finishing in the top four of the conference, the No. 10 seed Sun Devils will travel to Los Angeles to face No. 7 seeded Stanford on Wednesday, where they will look to carry the momentum over into the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
“We’ve really got to focus in and get ready for next week,” Felix said. “That’s the plan now. The Arizona game was a good win, but we’re ready for next week.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org