Valentine’s Day is supposed to be about love, romance, and profits for the greeting card industry. In 2014 you can add a fierce college basketball rivalry game to that list. The Arizona Wildcats entered the game #2 in the country and Coach Sean Miller was 7-2 in his last nine games against the Sun Devils. Arizona had destroyed their in-state rival by 23 points only a few weeks earlier and was hoping to complete the season sweep during a trip up to Tempe. CHD’s Jon Teitel started the week by heading home to the Valley of the Sun for vacation; he ended it by bearing witness to the greatest home win in ASU history.
I arrived 45 minutes before tip-off and was greeted by the ASU band in the midst of a fully-stocked student section behind one of the baskets. The Devils had lost three of five games to start conference play before winning five of six including several in dramatic fashion (two in OT and two others by a combined six points). The game was a sellout and there were a LOT of visiting fans wearing red and blue hoping to put another blemish on ASU’s 13-1 home record. Due to an unfortunate spitting incident involving a fan the week before, security was abundant between the student section and the tunnel leading to the locker room. Coach Miller was an assistant under ASU coach Herb Sendek at Miami-Ohio, and the two former colleagues had a long chat while greeting each other at half-court before the game. Arizona has owned the state over the past two decades by winning 31 of their past 39 against their neighbor to the north, but the teams had split the past 14 contests so you can throw the records out the window. The Wildcats’ nine rebounds-per-game advantage was sixth in the nation despite the loss of Brandon Ashley to a season-ending broken foot earlier this month. It would be interesting to see which team could control the boards. Each team’s cheering section gave the game a postseason intensity, and with Bill Walton on the call for ESPN you knew that it was going to be a special night.
The first half was a battle of the two-guards. Nick Johnson looked like a freshman after missing a one-handed dunk on an inbounds play, but bounced back with a three-pointer, a jumper, and a layup that gave him a team-high nine points and five rebounds at halftime. Arizona’s bench played a total of 17 minutes but went scoreless on 0-6 field goals, and Aaron Gordon’s horrific free throw shooting (42% entering the game) continued as he went 0-3 from the line. Jermaine Marshall kept ASU in the game all by himself: he scored 12 points on 5-10 shooting while his seven other teammates combined for nine points on 3-17 shooting (including a measly two points from star guard Jahii Carson). The Penn State transfer was devastating inside as he kept driving and spinning into the lane for easy layups at the rim. Holding down the fort on defense was center Jordan Bachynski, who was number one in the nation with 4.5 blocks-per-contest (and number one in Pac-12 history with 288 career blocks) and had been named Pac-12 Player of the Week after blocking a staggering 16 shots in his previous two games against the Oregon schools. Bachynski had four blocks (with a fifth waved off due to a questionable goaltending call) two steals in the first half, which allowed his team to enter the break with only a five point deficit.
The Devils knew they had to take it up a notch for the nationwide TV audience, so during halftime they brought out the football team to remind everyone that they beat the Wildcats last season, then some guy came out to mid-court and proposed to his girlfriend (who said yes). Arizona was 16-0 this year when leading at the half so they had to feel confident even on the road in a hostile atmosphere.
Johnson’s production dropped off in the second half but he was the subject of yet another ugly moment in ASU fan history when someone threw a sign onto the court after Johnson was not called for traveling while diving and skidding to get a loose ball: the fan was quickly removed from the arena to a loud chorus of boos. In the meantime McConnell picked up the slack for his backcourt mate: a pair of threes to avoid “Block-chynski” in the paint and a breakaway layup after Shaq McKissic threw the ball away. Carson and Gordon traded circus shots as athleticism was on display at both ends of the court. Marshall had a three bounce off the rim and then drop in to prove that it was indeed his night, and continued to get into the lane against whoever was trying to defend him. Late in the second half he bumped heads with an opponent and stayed down on the court for almost a minute, but after he finally got to his feet he looked directly at his coaching staff and waved off any attempt to sub someone in for him. Tied in the final seconds of regulation, Marshall missed an off-balance three at the buzzer, which was followed by a stampede of fans to the bathroom so they could relieve themselves and make it back in time for overtime.
Neither team could get its offense rolling in OT, although center Kaleb Tarczewski made four straight free throws to finish with the unluckiest double-double (13 points/13 rebounds). McKissic fouled out only two minutes into the extra stanza, and after Carson missed a 50-footer at the buzzer we were headed to overtime two. Gordon almost won the game by himself in double-OT: despite picking up his 4th foul in the 1st OT, the freshman kept attacking the basket and made a pair of layups to complete his own double-double. Even though it seemed like Marshall had not scored in about an hour, the senior took over down the stretch with a pair of 3-PT shots and what proved to be the game-winning layup off the wrong foot over an outstretched Johnson. McConnell attempted his own game-winning layup in the final seconds, but Block-chynski saved the day with his eighth and final swat that led to a Carson dunk and the ASU faithful storming the court for the first time since the James Harden era.
If you like offensive spectacles…then this was not the game for you. Neither team shot better than 40% from the field and the starting 10 combined for a pitiful 29-53 from the free throw line. The Wildcats dominated the boards with a 54-35 rebounding advantage but it did not translate to a victory. Arizona’s bench went scoreless in 22 total minutes of playing time but ASU’s bench did not do much better (five points in 58 total minutes).
Two big lessons we learned about the Wildcats: their free throw shooting will probably cost them another close game in the weeks ahead, and there is no way they (or anyone else) can win the tourney with all five starters playing 45+ minutes per game. The Devils proved that Marshall is their go-to guy on offense, and the Canadian big man can control a game by himself on the defensive end. As for the refs who did not call a technical foul on Carson for hanging on the rim on his last dunk or on the crowd for storming the court…let’s just say they will not be receiving Happy Valentine’s Day wishes from anyone in Tucson.