TEMPE, Ariz. — “Are you kidding me?” Arizona State men’s basketball coach Herb Sendek said, opening his postgame press conference following a wild 98-93 overtime win over USC on Thursday.
“Can you believe what we just witnessed out there? That was incredible.”
Sendek was referring to the Trojans’ late 3-point heroics that nearly cost the Sun Devils (15-4, 4-2 Pac-12) a must-win game, namely a contested prayer that Jio Fontan heaved from well beyond the arc with one second remaining to send the game to overtime.
“I’m still mesmerized,” Sendek continued. “It looked like he put the ball somewhere behind his head. I knew he wasn’t going to make it when I saw it from (the bench), but then the way things were going I knew it was in.
“If they’re going to make that shot, you’re going into overtime.”
The shot silenced the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena as the teams prepared for another five minutes, but the same crowd left happy when ASU hung on to set up a momentous showdown with UCLA on Saturday afternoon.
After Thursday’s win, another on Saturday would just be gravy.
UCLA scored an upset over No. 6 Arizona in Tucson on Thursday to remain second in the Pac-12 Conference, and you can bet the Sun Devils knew about it once they got to the locker room Thursday.
“With (UCLA) beating the ‘Cats, that gives them an extra boost,” ASU point guard Jahii Carson said. “They just got a win there, we just got a win there, so we’re both feeling confident. If we can get a win against UCLA, our confidence is going to go through the roof.”
ASU enters the Saturday matchup as heavy underdogs against the Bruins, who may just be emerging as the class of the Pac-12. Sendek, though, said he wasn’t even thinking about the looming matchup, insisting every conference game takes “every drop that we have.” That was particularly true Thursday in a win that almost wasn’t.
The Sun Devils missed three free throws in the final 1:03 of regulation, leaving the door open for USC’s shooting heroics to force overtime. Three of the Trojan’s 15 3-pointers came in the final minute of the second half.
But that the Sun Devils failed to ice the game at free throw line did not seem faze them, and Sendek asserted as much afterward.
“I was so proud of our guys when they came over after regulation because they immediately gave me confidence,” Sendek said. “They had great body language, they had great interaction among themselves, and they were just ready to go play another five minutes.”
ASU hit 7 of 8 free throws in overtime, including two with four seconds remaining to eliminate the possibility of another miracle three-pointer. But the Sun Devils finished 25-of-36 at the line, once again highlighting a season-long issue.
“We haven’t been a very good free throw-shooting team all season, and man has it made it a lot more difficult for us,” Sendek said.
ASU accepted blame for the free throws, but USC’s contested deep balls?
“There’s nothing you can really do with them throwing up threes and just hitting them,” Carson said. “Shoot, we were trying to contest them as best as we could. … At least we got the ‘W.'”
A loss would have set ASU up for a potential sweep that would have done much to dash the Sun Devils hopes of surprising in the conference. Instead, the Sun Devils get at least a split as they try to recharge for the quick turnaround ahead of them.