The ASU men's basketball team has had to overcome both size and depth issues all season, relying on its starting batch of guards to shoot them into games. Thursday night they nearly did just that, but their Achilles heel once again reared its head.
The Sun Devils (13-16, 6-10 Pac-12) fell 87-75 to No. 5 UCLA at Wells Fargo Arena, their seventh loss to a ranked team this season and second at home.
ASU came out of the gates setting tempo, lulling the Bruins to a slow start and snatching an early lead with the help of some rough shooting from UCLA.
In the teams' first matchup, the Bruins dominated from the 3-point arc, led by senior guard Isaac Hamilton's 33 points. The Bruins sank 16 of their 27 shots from deep to put the Sun Devils away early and easily.
Thursday, ASU emphasized taking away the deep ball and did it well enough, according to coach Bobby Hurley.
"I thought we guarded the (3-point) line fairly well on defense," Hurley said. "But on the flip side there wasn't a lot of help around the basket, so we got hurt in the paint."
In fact, UCLA did not make its first 3-pointer until nearly 13 minutes into the game, but that didn't matter to the post starters for the Bruins.
Freshman forward TJ Leaf has been a barometer for success, of sorts, for the Bruins, as his win/loss split suggests. Against the smaller Sun Devil frontcourt, he made his minutes count, scoring a team high 25 points and grabbing nine rebounds.
This is pretty true.— Matt Cummings (@mbcummings15) February 24, 2017
TJ Leaf in UCLA wins: 17.5 pts, 9.2 rebs, 2.5 asts
TJ Leaf in UCLA losses: 11 pts, 5.3 rebs, 1.3 asts (small sample) https://t.co/RKquB9hLY1
"They were tremendous," Alford said. "We tried to beat them down. I thought our board play was terrific."
The Bruins rebounds (25) nearly topped ASU's point total in the first half (36), and UCLA found its shot, giving the appearance that the Bruins were poised to run away with the game after halftime.
The Sun Devils, once again, came out of the locker rooms firing, cutting the deficit to two points a couple minutes into the half, but that's as close as they came.
The Bruins jumped back ahead and maintained a healthy lead through the end, relying heavily on the frontcourt on both ends.
Senior guard Obinna Oleka, who stands at 6-8, was left to deal with the 6-10 Leaf and 7-0 Welsh nearly on his own, due to the slim rotation, with the guards switching off on who would attempt to guard the other imposing force down low.
In fact, four Sun Devil starters were on the floor all 40 minutes, while the other — junior guard Kodi Justice — saw only 39 minutes of action.
The lone reserve to see the floor was freshman forward Ramon Vila, who entered the game with 13:06 remaining. He was promptly pulled 81 seconds later after an uncontested rebound sailed over his head and into the grasp of UCLA freshman forward Ike Anigbogu.
ASU came into the game using its bench less than any other team in the country, and the starting lineup's 199 minute effort will keep that from changing. But junior guard Kodi Justice is focused on what the starters can do, not what the bench can't.
"It hurts us sometimes," Justice said. "We don't have bench help, but we're young and we can fight through that."
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