As Eric Boateng left the floor for the final time in a regular season game at Wells Fargo Arena, the entire crowd was on its feet chanting his name.
It was just another chapter in the journey that has been Boateng’s basketball career.
The senior center left a lasting memory in the minds of the ASU faithful by scoring 16 points, recording a career-high 14 rebounds and adding four blocks to lead ASU to a 56-46 victory over UCLA.
The stats don’t matter to Boateng. He has been through too much for numbers to matter. He just wants to win.
“I really didn’t care about anything else but ending the regular season with a win,” Boateng said. “That’s the way I wanted to do it, and that’s been my main focus. It’s been the only thing that ran through my mind.”
The win was ASU’s (22-9, 12-6 Pac-10) eighth in the last ten games and locked up second place in the Pac-10 for the first time since 1981, after being picked as low as 10th by a few media outlets in the preseason.
“I think it means a lot to the program — 12 wins in the conference is the most since I’ve been here,” senior guard Derek Glasser said. “Guys really played their hearts out tonight and we came away with the win. It was a big one for us — we know we needed it, and that’s how we played tonight.”
With emotions running high on senior day, ASU bottled its emotions up and used them to jump out to an early 13-0 lead.
The Sun Devils used that hot start the rest of the afternoon. UCLA (13-17, 8-10) cut into the deficit, but never tied or led ASU.
The first half was crisp and efficient on both ends of the floor. ASU held down UCLA defensively and didn’t live by the jump shot to score on the offensive end. The end result was a 32-21 halftime advantage.
Senior guard Jerren Shipp opened the second half with a three-point play that gave the Sun Devils their biggest lead of the game, but the young Bruins didn’t let the game slip away from them.
UCLA went on a 9-0 run that cut ASU’s lead to 35-30 with 16:49 remaining that caused ASU coach Herb Sendek to call a timeout.
Out of the timeout, junior guard Jamelle McMillan drilled a 3-pointer and Boateng scored inside to bring the lead back up to double digits.
UCLA kept hanging around until Boateng took control of the game.
He used a nifty post move to spin past UCLA sophomore center J’mison Morgan for a dunk, and on the next possession scored off a pass from McMillan to put the Sun Devils up 51-40 with 3:31 left.
Then came his defense.
With UCLA desperately needing a bucket, sophomore guard Malcolm Lee drove into the lane, but Boateng was there to violently reject his shot attempt.
The Bruins eventually cut the lead to nine and had the chance to get the ball back after ASU junior forward Rihards Kuksiks missed a 3-pointer, but Boateng was there to grab the offensive rebound, and he dished it out to junior guard Ty Abbott for another look at a three that was missed.
Again, Boateng grabbed the offensive board, and eventually the possession resulted in an easy dunk by Kuksiks that put away the Bruins.
“[I] can’t say enough about him — he’s carrying us,” Glasser said. “Every game we come in here and we say it’s his best game of the year, and the next time I come in here I say it’s his best game of the year. I hope we can keep saying that.”
Kuksiks finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc, but he found ways to contribute. He finished with eight points, a career-high 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals.
ASU did what it needed to do to put itself in good shape heading into the Pac-10 Tournament to grab a bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, falling to Stanford in the first round of the conference tournament would eliminate all that it accomplished this weekend.
Nobody wants to keep playing more than Boateng, who is playing his career-best basketball as his time at ASU winds down.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity that I have,” Boateng said. “I just want to keep this thing going, because it’s fun.”
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