Style points don’t count in the race for a conference championship, and that’s a good thing for ASU.
In a physical, hard-fought battle, ASU came away with a 59-54 victory over USC Thursday night at Wells Fargo Arena.
ASU led 53-47 with 2:10 left to play, but USC made it a game that came down to the final seconds.
With the Sun Devils (21-9, 11-6 Pac-10) leading by only one point with 18 seconds to play, junior forward Rihards Kuksiks capped his big night with a pair of free throws, and senior center Eric Boateng put the cherry on top with a huge block on the defensive end to cement the victory.
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The win kept ASU’s conference championship hopes alive and was much-needed with its NCAA Tournament hopes hanging by a thread.
USC (16-13, 8-9) is banned from the postseason, but it certainly didn’t play like a team that was playing its second-to-last game of the season.
“We fully expected them to play hard,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “They have tremendous pride, and they are one of the best defensive teams in the country. It was expected from [USC] tonight, and we didn’t get anything easy.”
The Sun Devils’ offense wasn’t fluid in the first half, as ASU shot just 7-of-23 in the first half. Still, ASU went into halftime nursing a 23-21 lead.
Both teams played much better on offense in the second half — especially the Sun Devils, who shot 55 percent in the second half.
“We used the shot clock a little more, and we saw in the first half that we could get easier shots if we stayed patient,” senior guard Derek Glasser said. “Coach told us to stay focused and we could get any shot that we would want.”
Most of the key shots were made by Kuksiks, who finished with 24 points and made 6-of-9 3-point attempts.
“Rik played a great game,” Sendek said. “It started with him making a great effort to move without the ball. What can you say? Six threes.”
Four of the 3-pointers came in the second half, and seemingly whenever ASU needed a big shot, Kuksiks connected.
The Latvian sharpshooter missed his first two shots from beyond the arc on Thursday, extending his streak to eight straight misses from three-point land.
He found his stroke just in the nick of time, making 6-of-7 the rest of the way.
“They found me, and I made my shots,” Kuksiks said. “I am just coming back. I was somewhere else for a couple games.”
A shot from inside the arc by Kuksiks gave ASU a 48-43 lead with 5:08 to play, but USC junior guard Marcus Simmons drilled a jumper on the other end to cut it to 48-45.
Senior guard Mike Gerrity made two of three free throws to cut ASU’s lead to one point after Abbott fouled him behind the 3-point line, but on the other end Abbott found a cutting senior guard Jerren Shipp wide-open under the basket for an easy layup to make it 50-47.
The Sun Devils got a defensive stop, and then it was Abbott who was fouled, while attempting a 3-pointer, by USC junior guard Donte Smith.
Abbott stepped to the line and made all three free throws to build ASU’s lead to 53-47 with 2:10 to play.
USC quickly got right back into the game.
A layup by sophomore forward Leonard Washington and then a steal by Simmons and basket in transition made it 53-51 ASU with 42 seconds to play.
It then took ASU three tries to get the ball inbounds, and,on the third attempt Glasser was fouled. The senior drilled both free throws to make it 55-51.
USC shot itself in the foot on the next possession. Senior forward Marcus Johnson had an easy layup that was going to go in, but Washington prematurely hung on the rim and offensive basket interference was called.
Glasser missed the front end of the 1-and-1, and Johnson rushed down and nailed a 3-pointer to make it 55-54 with 18 seconds to play.
Kuksiks was then fouled, and he made two huge free throws to increase the lead to three.
That was when Boateng put the game away.
USC senior guard Dwight Lewis drove into the lane and appeared to have a quick bucket, but out of nowhere came the long arms of Boateng to swat the shot. The ball ended up in the hands of Glasser, who ended the game with two free throws.
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