It looked like the ASU men's basketball team (14-6, 5-3) was going to pull this one out – 39 odd minutes into one of the worst performances of the year for the team, redshirt senior Zylan Cheatham was at the line for a one-and-one with a chance to extend the slim Sun Devil lead to three.
Yet, even as his shot clanked off the back rim, ASU’s chances of victory still seemed high. The Sun Devils offensive ineptitude had almost been matched stride for stride by their opponent, the USC Trojans (12-8, 5-2), and ASU only needed one stop to secure its first road sweep of the Los Angeles schools since 1987.
But it simply wasn’t to be. Senior Trojan forward Bennie Boatwright nailed a three-pointer with a mere 14 seconds remaining to give USC the lead and ultimately the victory.
“We just hugged it out in there briefly,” coach Bobby Hurley said, referring to the mood in the locker room postgame. “(Cheatham’s) a warrior and he’s a big reason why we had a chance to win that game. He feels awful right now.
"It’s not his fault," Hurley said. "He’s disappointed in himself that he did not make that free throw, and he’s crushed in there, because he cares a lot.”
The fact that ASU even had a chance to win the game on its final shot is a testament to the team’s strength in numbers, and the coaching job done by Hurley and his staff throughout the game. ASU’s dismal shooting performance, 31 percent from the field, was balanced by their +14 advantage on the boards and an impressive 88 percent (22-25) clip from the free throw line. Even with four different Sun Devils scoring in double digits, ASU could not knock down shots when it mattered most and returns home with a disappointing split against USC and UCLA.
“When we have the lead, we can’t give it up,” sophomore guard Remy Martin said. “We have to stay consistent, and I’m the point guard and I have to make sure that happens.”
Despite going 2-7 from the field, redshirt sophomore forward Romello White led the Sun Devils in scoring with 11 while Cheatham, Martin, and sophomore forward Kimani Lawrence each contributed 10 points.
ASU started the game shooting poorly, going 11-32 (34.4 percent) from the field in the first half. Somehow though, it only got worse as the team connected on 8-30 (26.7 percent) shots in the second half including 3-11 (27.3 percent) from three. The Sun Devils did not do themselves any favors turning the ball over 15 times. While they did a good job limiting the Trojans to only 14 points off of those turnovers, the lost possessions are ultimately what cost ASU the game.
“We reverted back to doing a few things that we shouldn’t do,” Hurley said. “We didn’t really make them work on the defensive end, so when you have those quick shots and turnovers your opponent can go the other way so we have to try and resist making those types of plays.”
Despite the loss, Cheatham’s work on the boards was once again magnificent as he pulled in 14 Saturday night to give him 34 in the past two games. His tenacity and aggressiveness on both the offensive and defensive glass has come to define this Sun Devil team, and his ability to push the ball immediately after grabbing the rebound has transformed ASU into a dangerous team on the fast break.
“It’s been nothing short of spectacular,” assistant coach Anthony Coleman said, referring to his star senior’s work on the glass. “He’s been unbelievable on the backboards for us. He got us back to being one of the better rebounding teams in the conference, and we’re trying to get it back up to where we’re one of the better teams nationally.”
Martin, fresh off a career high 11 assists in the win Thursday night over UCLA, continued to find his teammates for easy buckets Saturday as he finished the contest with a game-high seven assists. Similar to the Bruins, USC also chose to go with the 2-3 zone defensively, albeit a much more aggressive one. While the openings weren’t quite as glaring Saturday night as they were against UCLA, Martin was still able to make a similar impact on the game with his quickness and eye for an opening.
“He completes our team,” Coleman said on Martin. “When he plays that facilitator role, brings that energy and defensive toughness, moves the basketball around and gets guys involved offensively, he makes us a complete team.”
Up next for the Sun Devils are the Arizona Wildcats, who against these same USC and UCLA squads lost by a combined 44 points. The loss of redshirt junior center Chase Jeter has affected the Wildcats more than many had anticipated, with Arizona looking like a completely different team than it did just a few weeks ago.
ASU will take on Arizona in Tempe on Thursday, Jan. 31 at 7:00 p.m. MST.