When Arizona and ASU finally put on what might have been their most anticipated game in decades Saturday, the tension was unmistakable.
The Wildcats handed the third-ranked Sun Devils their first loss of the season, 84-78, in a game marked by physical, aggressive play. There were technical fouls on both teams. Referees yelled at by both coaches and fans alike. Surges by both teams throughout the game.
Deandre Ayton felt every bit of it, somewhere underneath his normally understated Bahamian manner, and he ate it up.
“It was nice. I liked it,” Ayton said. “It was pretty intense. I couldn’t hear myself for a few possessions.”
He can blame himself for a lot of that noise, collecting 23 points 19 rebounds, three assists and three blocks. For as much as ASU has earned national respect for its 12-0 start and aggressive “Guard U” play, the Sun Devils couldn’t find a way to stop Ayton any better than anyone else.
“I mean, I would say they’re undersized big men, so I took advantage on both ends of the floor,” Ayton said.
That was pretty much all Ayton had to say about the mismatch, but teammate Allonzo Trier took it a bit further.
“You can‘t prepare for him when he comes in the game,” Trier said. “It’s going to be tough for every team.”
While Trier did his own damage despite an off shooting night, scoring 23 points while going 5 for 15 from the field but 10 of 10 from the free-throw line, Ayton was a factor from beginning to end, a total of 35 minutes.
Ayton put the game all but away for good when he tipped in a missed layup by Trier with 11 seconds left to give UA an 82-78 lead that the Wildcats (11-3) held on for good, giving the Sun Devils their first loss of the season in 13 games.
Third-ranked ASU entered the game the only unbeaten team remaining in college basketball, with both top-ranked Villanova and 10th-ranked TCU having lost for the first time this season earlier Saturday. With Arizona ranked No. 17, it was the first time both UA and ASU have played each other while ranked since 1994-95.
But even though the Sun Devils were ranked higher, the Wildcats’ win was not an upset. UA opened as a five-point favorite, according to Vegas Insider, and bettors pushed it to a six-point margin — exactly the number UA won by.
Arizona has now won eight straight games over ASU at McKale Center and five straight overall, with the teams scheduled to meet again in Tempe on Feb. 15.
The Wildcats shot 55.6 percent in the second half while holding ASU to just 32.4 percent after halftime, but the Sun Devils took 19 free throws in the second half, 10 of them by Tra Holder, who scored 31 points overall with 15-for-16 free-throw shooting.
“I haven’t seen a guard that’s become as good at getting fouled as Tra Holder,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “He’s just so explosive. He’s a monster. He just has incredible ballhandling and quickness and the way the team’s set up, man, he’s at the rim.”
Thanks to aggressive play of Holder and his teammates, who gave themselves the “Guard U” moniker after beating Xavier and Kansas earlier this season, even as Arizona led by up to 12 points, it never really could breathe easy until the final buzzer.
ASU, after all, had come back from deficits of nine points or more on five previous occasions to win this season.
And a 3-pointer by Kodi Justice that cut UA’s lead to 78-76 with 1:12 left sent a message that the Sun Devils weren’t going away in this one either, not at least until the final seconds.
The hotly contested game featured two technical fouls, and plenty of yelling at officials from coaches of both teams. Ayton was called for a technical in the first half while ASU’s Shannon Evans was called for one in the second, apparently for what they said in both cases. Evans’ foul resulted in two free throws by Allonzo Trier in the second half that gave the Wildcats a 58-48 lead with 12:28 left.
From there, ASU cut it to one point while continuing to get to the free-throw line more often in the second half. Earlier in the week, UA coach Sean Miller said keeping the Sun Devils from shooting free throws would be a critical task.
But while the Sun Devils took just six in the first half, they took 11 in the first 12 minutes of the second half, hitting nine of them to pull within a point, 64-63.
ASU finished with 20-for-25 shooting from the free-throw line, getting there five fewer times than its average entering the game.
UA built its lead back up to 76-64 on a three-point play from Ayton before ASU put up another run with Holder sinking a 3-pointer to cut UA’s lead to 76-73 with 2:14 left.
Leading 39-37 at halftime, Arizona held ASU to 22-percent shooting in the first nine minutes of the second half, when the Wildcats expanded their lead to 62-50 on a dunk from Dusan Ristic.
The Wildcats hit 9 of 15 over the same stretch early in the second half while Allonzo Trier hit 2 of 3 shots after going 1 for 7 in the first half.
In the first half, the Sun Devils held UA to 36.1 percent shooting while hitting 44.8 percent from the field — including 5 of 10 3-pointers.
Ayton led Arizona with 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, while Dylan Smith had nine points on 3-for-4 3-point shooting.
Trier was 1 for 7 from the field but hit two free throws and a 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds of the half to give UA the lead before halftime.
Holder led the Sun Devils with 12 points while Remy Martin had nine.
With McKale Center loudest in the initial minutes, the Wildcats went ahead 9-3 in the first four minutes while ASU missed five of its first six shots. But the game soon after tightened up and remained that way for the rest of the half.
Martin went 3 of 3 over the second four minutes of the first half, helping ASU take a 20-18 lead with 11:09 left.
But after Holder hit two free throws to give ASU a 24-21 lead, UA kept the Sun Devils scoreless for the next 2:57 and went ahead 28-24.