TEMPE – For 30 minutes Saturday, Arizona and ASU put on the kind of physical, intense and foul-plagued show that you’d expect from a heated intrastate rivalry.
During Arizona’s 71-54 win over ASU at Wells Fargo Arena, neither team led by more than a basket for the first 18 minutes, seven players had two or more fouls at halftime, and Sun Devil forward Carrick Felix added a little spice with a first-half technical foul.
Even after Arizona took control of the game with an 11-0 run in the middle of the second half, the intensity never waned.
It’s just that the seventh-ranked Wildcats (16-1 overall, 4-1 in the Pac-12) kept throwing fresh bodies at guys like Felix, who went 1 of 8 from the field with seven turnovers while logging 40 minutes.
There was also the sight of ASU forward Jonathan Gilling, who hit 5 of 6 threes in ASU’s 87-80 win over UA at Tempe last season, taking just five shots and scoring six points in 37 minutes.
The Sun Devils (14-4, 3-2) did get 22 points and four assists from dynamic point guard Jahii Carson over 33 foul-plagued minutes. There was 14 points from Evan Gordon over 40 minutes, too, but that wasn’t enough, either.
Eventually, UA’s depth and defense wore the Sun Devils out.
“You know the minutes that Jahii, Felix and Gordon were playing? I don’t think those guys came out of the game,” UA forward Solomon Hill said. “You can’t ask those guys to play that high a level for 40 minutes. There’s no Kobe Bryants on the court. So we continued to throw waves at them … When we’ve got a lot of new defenders on you, it’s going to be pretty hard.”
So even though Lyons picked up a quick two fouls within the first eight minutes of the game – and center Kaleb Tarczewski had two halfway through the first half while tangling with ASU’s 7-foot-2 Jordan Bachynski – the Wildcats kept plowing ahead.
They needed not worry.
“We knew we were the deeper team,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “That doesn’t mean on a given night that’s going to work. … but we can withstand foul trouble and we don’t have to get into the fatigue part of things nearly as much because we do play our bench and our bench has really helped us.”
Offensively, Lyons tied his season high with 24 points, Johnson had 19, and Hill had 13 points with five assists. But it was also defenders such as Brandon Ashley and even Jordin Mayes that Miller was praising afterward.
Mayes didn’t take a shot in 13 minutes but had one assist and played solid defense against the Sun Devils’ strong-shooting perimeter players while Ashley was a central figure, along with Parrom, in shutting down Felix.
Yes, Ashley. The 6-foot-8 forward known for his considerable offensive skills but not, until Saturday, discussed much as a defender.
Miller said it was the best defensive performance Ashley has had yet, while Lyons was practically ready to invite him to the backcourt.
“Brandon Ashley – he defended like a guard and he’s 6-8,” Lyons said. “We got the win because of his efforts, too. He was closing out with high hands, he was beating them to the spot… Usually, you don’t see that from Brandon so that was good to see today.”
Felix entered the game as the Sun Devils’ second-leading scorer (15.1 points) and leading rebounder (8.1) but managed to hit only one three-pointer in seven attempts, missed his only two-point shot and turned the ball over seven times.
Felix only took two shots in the first half and, while he hit a three to pull ASU within four points with 15 minutes to go, missed four three-pointers in the final five minutes while the Sun Devils tried to stay in the game.
Overall, ASU shot just 39.1 percent, and made just 5 of 20 three-point shots. It was the second game in a row that UA has kept its opponent under 40 percent from the field after the Wildcats were burned by Oregon’s 48.1-percent shooting in their lone loss of the season on Jan. 10.
That’s a good trend for the Wildcats to be on heading into another showdown Thursday against UCLA at McKale Center.
“One of the reasons that we ended up winning like we did was our defense really returned to us,” Miller said. “I thought our defense fueled us and through the 12 non-conference games that’s something we did very well, especially in the biggest games on the schedule. In today’s game, we defended with a lot of purpose.”