TEMPE — It is 30 seconds into the game, the crowd still on its feet, and hope floats for the Sun Devils. Everything is possible, especially a victory over the nation’s No. 7 team.
Solomon Hill gets the ball 20 feet from the bucket and decides he will deliver an opening statement. He insists on attempting to dunk over 7-foot, 2-inch Jordan Bachynski, who is guarding the rim like a starved vulture.
“I won’t lie, I had thought about (dunking on him) for a while," Hill says two hours later. “I read statements in the paper that (Bachynski) baits guys into dunking so he can stuff them. I wanted to see if he could back it up."
Hill’s left-handed, tomahawk dunk resonated through the arena and with his teammates. The Wildcats would not be cowed by ASU’s big man nor by cheeky freshman point guard Jahii Carson nor by the annual capacity crowd at Wells Fargo Arena.
Arizona won 71-54 and in doing so pulled the plug on the Sun Devils’ midseason bid to become a player on the national stage.
Arizona won not so much because of what it did, but because it didn’t allow the Sun Devils to do what they wanted to do. Outside of Carson, the Wildcats had an answer for everything ASU hoped to be able to do. They exposed the Sun Devils’ lack of quickness, lack of depth and lack of size.
It was so clean that Arizona coach Sean Miller used but two of his eight possible time-outs, and the last, with 2:08 remaining and his team up by 13, didn’t really count.
Do you know how unusual that is in college hoops?
In last week’s soul-wrenching finish at Oregon, Miller and Ducks coach Dana Altman both used all of their time-outs.
Miller’s unique advantage Saturday was that ASU had essentially been reduced to a five-man team with the suspension of sixth man Chris Colvin. The last thing Miller wanted was let the Sun Devils gather themselves, and so he didn’t. Arizona kept the hammer down from Hill’s opening dunk to the end.
“We were flowing pretty good and I didn’t want to screw that up," said Miller. “We were subbing more; it was to our advantage not to stop the game."
By game’s end, Miller had substituted players in and out 35 times. Junior guard Jordin Mayes, who played 13 fresh and effective minutes, checked in the game on six occasions. Whenever Carson, or fellow guard Evan Gordon got the ball in the second half, they were followed by a rested UA player.
Have you ever heard a basketball analyst say that Team A has “lost its legs?" The Sun Devils lost theirs with about eight minutes remaining.
“We just kept pushing," said Hill. “Those guys can’t play 40 minutes straight. Not too many guys can play competitively hard for 40 minutes. Those guys were worn down in the second half."
Saturday’s game was a reflection of Miller’s four quality recruiting seasons at Arizona.
Some have moaned that Miller’s bench should go deeper, to center Angelo Chol, but it doesn’t need to be nine deep when Mayes, Grant Jerrett and Kevin Parrom can play, as they did Saturday, 55 productive minutes.
ASU’s reserves played 25 minutes.
“We don’t have to get in the fatigue side of things," said Miller.
Fatigue? In the second half, Gordon slowed to a crawl. He scored 11 points in the first half but just three points thereafter and was clearly gassed. That happens when you play 40 minutes and the guy guarding you, Lyons, plays 31.
“They kinda got sloppy; they start panting," said Hill. “I’m lucky because I can look for subs and they can’t look for subs. I’ve got Kevin and Grant coming in for me. So we’re always attacking."
Carson is a fabulous talent, a game-changer, but even he needs more around him than ASU coach Herb Sendek has been able to assemble. If Carson stays around for three seasons, or four, he could be an all-conference player multiple times, but on Saturday he was asked to do too much with too little.
“Normally we come out and set the tempo and we throw the first punch," he said. “I think they did that."
Carson further said that the noise in the arena bothered him, that he couldn’t always hear Sendek’s instructions. That’s odd. In 25 years, I’ve never heard a UA player say the noise in the arena got to him.
Perhaps it’s all part of the expectations at Arizona. You thrive on the biggest stage, throw down an opening dunk over the league’s most feared big man and send a message that you’ve got bigger games to play.