LAS VEGAS — This was the game the ASU men's basketball team wanted. The five seed against the 12 seed. A team that it had already beaten.
The game played out that way, too. Until it didn't.
The Sun Devils (17-15, 9-9 Pac-12) fell to USC 67-64 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It is the second straight year that ASU lost in its first game of the tournament as a higher seed.
ASU opened the game well, grabbing momentum and building a lead. The Sun Devils were outshot by USC in the first half, but grabbed more rebounds and held a 10-point lead, mostly because of the difference in turnovers.
Video by Justin Janssen | Sports Editor
USC coach Andy Enfield said that his players did not play to their ability, which led to the steep deficit his team faced.
"We struggled early on. We didn't play well in the first half," Enfield said. "There were times in the second half where we turned the ball over, just missed easy shots. And I'm a big believer, players win games. When your better players play well, you're pretty well off. When your better players don't play well, like some of our guys in the first half, you struggle."
After the break, the ASU lead held strong and got bigger with more efficient play offensively.
The Sun Devils led by 15 points with 9:45 remaining in the game after a 3-pointer by Bo Barnes and the game appeared all but over.
Then, the Trojans made a change. USC began running a zone defense, which has given ASU fits all season, and it worked to perfection. Suddenly, there was no room for the Sun Devils to move offensively and USC converted on the other end.
Enfield said that his team improved running zone as the year went on and it was at its best against the Sun Devils.
"Our zone has been very good for us in the last month of the season," Enfield said. "Our guys are learning to switch and recover and rebound out of it. I thought it was effective because we were active in it."
Starting after the Barnes three, USC started to turn the game around. Sendek said he couldn't think of a precise moment, but he felt the game changing.
"I don't know the precise time," Sendek said. "We were focused on the next possession. We had some opportunities on offense that we didn't convert. We go to the line, missed two free throws and then you're back on defense."
On those next possessions, USC made the most of their opportunities. Freshman guard Elijah Stewart was on fire all day, especially in crunch time. Stewart ended with a season-high 27 points, 14 coming in the second half. He said that he didn't do anything different today, the shots were just falling.
"Just been putting in the preparation for this game," Stewart said. "Getting the shots, working on dribble moves, coming off screens and stuff like that, and it showed in the game."
USC fought to regain the lead with 2:04 remaining in the game and did not look back. Sophomore forward Nikola Jovanovic was huge down the stretch, making the go-ahead layup and then blocking senior forward Shaquielle McKissic's layup that would have given ASU a lead with 11 seconds left.
A possible game-tying 3-pointer by McKissic hit off the rim as the buzzer with no time left and ASU will go home with a missed opportunity.
Sendek is now looking forward to the future of the program. Despite the close loss, he believes that the season should be looked at as a whole before it is judged, not just one game.
"We lost a close game today," Sendek said. "And that never feels good. But I don't think that that in and of itself takes away from the progress they made and the efforts they've had with some great wins through the season as well."
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