If you were tracking ASU coach Herb Sendek at game's end Saturday, before his obligatory and awkward hand-shaking scene with not-so-chummy former assistant coach Sean Miller, you noticed that Sendek appeared to veer toward referee Randy McCall and say something.
It probably wasn't "say hello to the missus, Randy, and have a nice day."
This is what happens when the depth-challenged Pac-12 officiating office sends a B-level crew to a rivalry game like Arizona-ASU. McCall, Michael Eggers and newbie Daryl Gelinas called seven fouls on Arizona in the first 2:34 of the second half.
Miller called it "extremely bizarre," saying he hadn't seen anything like it "from the time I was 2 to the time I was 44."
Predictably, because the overflow crowd at McKale Center was screaming bloody murder, the refs cowed, calling eight fouls on the Sun Devils in the next 5:28. The flow and pace of the game were blown to smithereens, and everyone on the Sun Devils' thin roster seemed to be in foul trouble. If there's one thing this ASU team can't endure, it's a free-throw shooting contest.
Arizona won 73-58 but the Wildcats weren't able to tie a pretty bow around their Senior Day victory. It was perhaps the ugliest half of the season, but that somehow fits with Arizona's unfulfilling, second-place conference finish.
The Wildcats were happy to beat the Sun Devils; shoot, they would've been happy to beat anybody after being swept in Los Angeles a week ago. But they didn't cut down the nets on Senior Day, and wasn't that everybody's goal four months ago?
It could've been worse. You could've been ASU, which had three players foul out, unable to sustain a brief second-half rally for the most uncomplicated of all reasons: It doesn't have enough good players to win at McKale on a day the Wildcats play with purpose and intensity.
"Early in the second half, we were the benefactor," Sendek said of the officials' inability to main control of the game. "We were in the bonus roughly three minutes into the half, and then pretty much the rest of the half the fouls were on us."
It wasn't like playing five-on-seven, but it wasn't far off, either.
Miller didn't have to wait long to realize that this would be a good day for his team. In the opening possessions, he immediately saw that his club's defensive intensity was operating effectively, the residue of what had been an unusually demanding week at practice.
"I don't know if I've gone longer and harder on a team, in March, than I did this week," he said. His best compliment to his team's defensive effort was probably when he said "Arizona State earned its points."
Somehow, somewhere, on the Road to March, Arizona's defense got off track. The Wildcats were so out of sync that they allowed the six Pac-12 teams that beat them to shoot an alarming 50 percent (38 of 76) on three-point attempts.
That'll get you beat every time.
But on Saturday, the Sun Devils rarely got an open perimeter shot, missing 9 of 15 treys. At the same time, Arizona shut off precocious point guard Jahii Carson's ability to penetrate inside and either score or dish off to an open teammate.
Carson scored 15 points, but none of them mattered much, and he had twice as many turnovers, six, as assists, three.
"We got the stops we wanted," said UA senior Solomon Hill, who, given his expertise in all matters McKale Center, added, appropriately, "with a crowd like that, your chances of losing are almost zero."
Carson is really good, but he's almost a lone soldier in maroon and gold. He has taken 91 more shots than any Wildcat player this year, but he doesn't have enough help to take it to a bigger stage.
It's nice if you're auditioning for the NBA, but otherwise it's a lot of heartache.
Here's a huge difference between ASU and Arizona: Miller chose not to use sophomore center Angelo Chol at all Saturday. Put Chol in a Sun Devil uniform and he'd be averaging 12 points and seven rebounds, tired from playing 30 minutes a game.
Carson met his match in the game's opening moments when he was guarding former boyhood rival Nick Johnson on the perimeter. Sendek's defensive scheme on Saturday was to let the slumping Johnson take his shots, choosing to pack his defense elsewhere.
As Johnson prepared to shoot a three-pointer, Carson backed off, daring Johnson to shoot. Swish. Arizona led 10-5. Johnson trotted down court, trash-talking to Carson. This would be Johnson's day, not Carson's.
Pick your poison, right? Johnson scored a team-high 17 points, effectively making Arizona a different and more dangerous team.
"They chose to play me the way they played me," said Johnson, declining to rub it in. His 17-point performance gives hope that (a) he has emerged from a six-week slump and (b) he can be a go-to scorer the rest of the way.
Miller twice last week said publicly how disappointed he is that his club didn't win the Pac-12 title. Beyond that regret, to his credit, he appears to have put the Wildcats together again at the last possible moment.
"We are 24-6 and there's no one in our locker room that doesn't understand a lot of the great things we've accomplished," he said. "But you only play the regular season to position yourself for March."
The Wildcats go to the conference tournament in Las Vegas with as good a chance to win the Pac-12 tournament as anyone in the field. In that regard, and with a sweep over the Sun Devils, who's complaining?