TUCSON, Ariz. – Arizona State was not itself Saturday. Too many turnovers. Too few offensive options. Too little beef on the boards.
It was not the preferred way to end a regular season, but there is nothing the Sun Devils can do about it now. ASU will enter the Pac-12 tournament on a four-game losing streak after a 73-58 loss to No. 18 Arizona in the final regular-season game at McKale Center, and it only has a few days to get its groove back.
The Sun Devils (20-11, 9-9), the No. 9 seed, will open the league tournament with a noon game against eighth-seeded Stanford on Wednesday at the MGM Grand, and they have plenty of homework to do in preparation for their second meeting with the Cardinal, which won the lone regular-season game in Tempe.
ASU had 17 turnovers against Arizona, was outrebounded by 12 and was kept from its normal open perimeter looks when defenders Nick Johnson and Solomon Hill kept Jonathan Gilling and Evan Gordon from anything resembling a clean look at a 3-pointer.
“A couple of things stand out,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “Certainly, their advantage in rebounding and our turnovers. With 17 turnovers and the disadvantage we had on the boards, that was not a good combination.”
Carrick Felix had 22 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor and Jahii Carson added 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting, but the two also had eight of the Sun Devils’ turnovers. Jordan Bachynski had eight points and three blocked shots, but he had only one rebound and had three turnovers in 27 minutes. Chris Colvin had four points, five rebounds and three turnovers.
Still, Arizona State was within five points, 48-43, after Gilling’s lone 3-pointer of the game from the right baseline with 11:25 remaining. But Arizona scored 20 of the next 25 points, the first seven from Johnson, to pull away. Johnson’s 3-pointer to start the run was the only basket that was out of point-blank range. UA (24-6, 12-6) will enter the Pac-12 tournament with a No. 4 seed and a first-round bye.
“Whenever we tried to get a run, we didn’t capitalize on defense and they got easy buckets,” Carson said. “That takes a toll on your run, when you are trying to get stops and they get easy buckets. That gets their momentum going, and that knocks us down a lot.”
The Wildcats had a 35-23 rebounding advantage, and their 13 offensive rebounds led to 12 second-chance points. The Sun Devils had three offensive rebounds and two second-chance points.
“We need to get more out of everybody,” Sendek said when asked if ASU needed more rebounds from its frontline.
Arizona State entered the game averaging 11.3 turnovers a game in league play despite playing its up-tempo style, but Arizona forced more turnovers by scheming to take away passing lanes when the Sun Devils tried to free point guard Carson with screens at the top of the key. That led to turnovers, which the Wildcats converted into 21 points at the other end.
“That was a big factor,” Carson said. “If we cut down those turnovers by two or three a half, and I think the game is a different story. Not taking anything away from them, but they capitalized a lot on our turnovers,” Carson said.
Stopping Carson was on Arizona’s mind after he had 22 points in the Wildcats’ 71-54 victory in Tempe on Jan. 19
“Jahii Carson uses a lot of ball screens” Arizona senior Solomon Hill said. “He’s a quick guy, so when he comes off ball screens, if we’re in help (defense) early, he has to pick the ball up and pass it. So being in that lane early was the biggest difference. That was the biggest difference from the first game. You have to be early in your gap.”
Gordon and Gilling were 2 for 10 from the field, 1 for 6 on 3-point attempts, in a combined 55 minutes Saturday. Like Carson, Gilling was a point of emphasis for the Wildcats, who remembered well his five 3-pointers and 21 points in the Sun Devils’ 87-80 upset victory in the final regular-season game on March 4, 2012.
“He was in my grill all day,” Gilling said of Johnson, who also had 17 points and three steals.
“He’s the best defender on their team. He knew I was going to shoot it if I got that open. It was hard. He was there all game when he was guarding me. He had some easy buckets on the run-outs. He always plays well against us. I have to figure out a way to get better at that — playing small guys.”
Johnson did most of the work on Gilling before ceding to Hill with about nine minutes left in the game. Johnson had Carson most of the rest of the way.
“We knew (Gilling) gets all the open 3s. Drive and kick, stuff like that,” Johnson said. “They try to get him the ball on inbounds stuff. We tried to chase him off the 3-point line and not give him open looks. I remember last year, he was a big part in our loss up there. Coach (Sean Miller) had a game plan, and it worked.”
So it’s on to the Pac-12 tournament, with ASU needing an unlikely run to the conference title for a spot in the NCAA tournament following the recent losing streak.
“We just have to come together. We’re brothers,” Carson said.