TEMPE, Ariz. — A funny thing happened on the way to a seemingly routine Arizona State victory Thursday.
California forgot to play along.
The Sun Devils, who never trailed, led by 15 points with 8-plus minutes remaining but were able to score only one basket the rest of the way, holding on for a 66-62 Pac-12 victory by making four free throws in the final 33 seconds at Wells Fargo Arena.
Evan Gordon made three of those free throws to cap a 23-point night as the Sun Devils averted a loss that would have greatly damaged their chances of getting into the NCAA tournament for the first time since James Harden left school four years ago.
Several computer projections include ASU (18-5, 7-3) as one of the final teams in the 68-team NCAA field, but the Sun Devils need every victory they can get because of a relatively low strength of schedule and one signature victory again UCLA, although it was a blowout.
“We all understand how hard it is to get a win on the road. The home games should be automatic. We have to make sure we protect home,” said Gordon, who has 112 points and has made 17 3-pointers in the last seven games.
Gordon’s layup on a cut to the basket on a free from reserve center Ruslan Pateev gave the Sun Devils a 56-42 lead, and Pateev followed that with a hook shot — he faked right, then put up a nice left-handed shot in the lane — and a layup on an inbounds pass from Gordon, and ASU was up, 60-45.
But Cal kept coming, cutting Arizona State’s lead to six points, then three, then two, on 3-pointers by Tyrone Wallace Justin Cobbs (two) as the Sun Devils struggled to get into their offense when the Golden Bears switched to an aggressive zone defense.
Cobbs’ last three, with 22.9 seconds remaining, made it 64-62, but that was as close is the Bears came. Gordon hit a free throw, Cal top scorer Allen Crabbe dribbled the ball of his leg out of bounds on a move to the basket, and Jonathan Gilling made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left. Gilling had ASU’s only basket in the final eight minutes, a pull-up jumper in the lane with 4:43 left for a 62-54 edge.
“We were right back hanging on for dear life,” Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said.
ASU moved into a tie for second place in the Pac-12 when Colorado beat Oregon in Eugene and UCLA beat Washington at the buzzer in Pauley Pavilion. ASU, Oregon and UCLA have three league losses, while Arizona has two.
On a night when Jahii Carson had 12 points and Carrick Felix had only eight while a) focusing most of his efforts on guarding Crabbe, who had 16 points, and b) seeing double the final four minutes after being poked in an eye, Gordon and Pateev were the difference-makers.
Pateev, a 7-foot senior who has not started a game this season, tied his career high with 12 points set against Arizona last season. He had eight rebounds, tying Gilling for the team high, while playing a a season-high 26 minutes in place of Jordan Bachynski. Pateev had played 101 minutes and scored 24 points in the first nine Pac-12 games, and his relief effort was similar to the one he had when he scored eight points and had five rebounds in a 98-93 overtime victory over USC on Jan 24.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Ruslan,” Sendek said. “He’s a senior who has never been center stage but has always been an unconditionally great teammate. So he is like a constant reminder to everybody in our program of the beauty of being unselfish. To see him have these kinds of contributions down the stretch in his senior year is about as good as it gets for a coach.”
ASU put particular emphasis on rebounding and defending the paint in practice this week after giving up 19 second-chance points, 50 points in the paint and losing the rebounding battle by 16, 36-20, in a 96-92 loss at Washington on Saturday.
California does not have the same sort of interior presence as the Huskies do — Washington outrebounded Cal by 15 in a victory in Berkeley on Jan. 9 — but with Pateev supplying a big body ASU had a 32-30 rebounding edge and scored 32 points in the paint.
“I felt it was a little bit easier to get into the post as opposed to some other teams,” Pateev said.
Although falling short Thursday, Cal (13-9, 5-5) had a similar late run in its 58-54 victory over then-No. 10 Oregon last week, scoring 12 of the final 16 points to beat a ranked team for the first time in four seasons.
That did not appear likely in the early stages. The Sun scored on their first five possession and then used a 15-1 run for a 25-9 lead. Gilling, Gordon and Felix had 3-pointers and Gordon had a traditional three-point play in that run, when Pateev first made his presence felt with a short hook shot and a follow slam after a Chris Colvin miss.
Crabbe had his first field goal to end that stretch, hitting an 18-footer when ASU was late reacting to a screen. Crabbe , who had missed his first two field goal attempts, then made three more quick hoops as Cal answered with a 10-0 run to get back into the game.
Enter Pateev and Gordon again. Pateev hit a hook and another slam, Gordon made a 3-pointer and a bank shot and Gilling had a three off a Gordon feed. Pateev’s dunk on inbounds pass from Gordon with 1:29 remaining ASU’s lead at 13 before Crabbe hit a three from the left wing to trim ASU’s lead to 37-27 at half.
“We’re playing more together. We just have to finish games with more poise and focus,” Gordon said.