TEMPE, Ariz. — The turning point was about as decisive as Arizona’s victory Saturday.
The game was as close and as intense as a rivalry should be when Arizona State guard Jahii Carson reached in and fouled Mark Lyons on a drive to the basket midway through the second half, earning Carson his fourth foul. Arizona’s two-point lead immediately grew to four, and the impact was felt the rest of the way in the No. 7 Wildcats’ 71-54 victory at Wells Fargo Arena.
With that grab went ASU’s chance for a statement victory and perhaps a place in the national polls.
“It changed (the game) tremendously,” Carson said.
Arizona guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson scored 25 of their 43 points in the second half, when the savvy Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) made it a point to attack Carson and backcourt mate Evan Gordon with drives to the basket, even after Carson switched from guarding Lyons to covering Johnson, his former Phoenix youth league and summer ball teammate.
Carson still led ASU (14-4, 3-2) with 22 points.
“Once Carson got three fouls, he was suspect on defense,” said Arizona forward Solomon Hill, who had 13 points, six rebounds and five assists. “He didn’t want to get that fourth foul, so once he switched over to Nick, we would have Johnson drive the ball, and then Mark Lyons.”
While Carson had two fouls in the first 11-plus minutes of the game, ASU coach Herb Sendek did all he could to prevent the third, twice making defense-for-offense substitutions in the final 97 seconds of the half by replacing Carson with Bo Barnes to keep Carson from drawing a third foul on defense. It worked both times. But Carson was called for a suspect offensive foul with 10 seconds left in the half when Arizona wing Kevin Parrom appeared to move under Carson as he drove toward the basket, and that gave Carson virtually no room for error in the second half.
Lyons converted two free throws after Carson’s fourth foul to give Arizona a 48-44 lead with 9:50 remaining, starting the Wildcats on a 13-3 run. The Sun Devils, who also got 14 points from Evan Gordon, were closer than 10 points only once thereafter.
“Boom, with a big chunk of time left he picks up his fourth,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said of Carson. “We tried to give him a couple of possessions with us on the sideline, but at that point, we were down. They did a good job of attacking him with four fouls, and he was understandably cautious, so I thought defensively that was difficult for us.”
Compounding ASU’s problem was that senior guard Chris Colvin was suspended for the game. Colvin has averaged 19.6 minutes a game as the only other guard with appreciable playing time, and his absence made a thin roster — the Sun Devils have only six players who average more than 11 minutes a game — that much thinner.
“We rely on his defensive toughness. We rely on his ball-handling and playmaking. We’ll get through this and come back,” said Sendek, who did not say when Colvin might return.
“It was very disappointing,” Carson added. “When I step out and have four fouls, he can go in there and guard the guards. He can guard Solomon Hill. He can guard guys who are tougher for us to guard when we have fouls. I can’t foul or I’m going to have five fouls, so that puts us in a difficult position. He disappointed us. I think he could have stepped up for us big time if he would have played today, but I always forgive my teammate.”
ASU shot only 39 percent, was outrebounded by six and committed 17 turnovers, almost twice as many as Arizona, which had just nine. The Sun Devils had not committed that many turnovers in almost eight weeks, since committing a season-high 18 against both No. 14 Creighton and Arkansas-Pine Bluff in a five-day span near Halloween. They averaged 9.75 in their previous four Pac-12 games.
“They (Arizona) are a good defensive team,” Sendek said, “and I don’t mean to take anything away from their effort defensively, but I’d like to think that we control our turnovers more than our opponent does. You don’t need to look too far beyond that number to see why we struggled.”
ASU forward Carrick Felix, who was averaging 15.1 points a game, had his 16-game streak of double-figure scoring snapped in what statistically was his least productive game of the season. Arizona coach Sean Miller gave freshman Brandon Ashley the primary assignment on Felix, who finished with five points, five rebounds and seven turnovers. Felix was just 1 for 8 from the field, and seven of those attempts were 3-pointers, as he was unable to get around the active Ashley.
“He’s been having a sensational year, and today wasn’t his day in any way, shape or form,” Sendek said. “For us to absorb a kind of game like that from Carrick is a lot to ask of our team right now, because we depend on him in so many different ways.”
Added Felix: “I just needed to show up for my team, and I didn’t do that today. I definitely settled for the 3 a little more today. I didn’t play my usual game, attacking the rim and playing within the offense. I think I kind of just did it to myself. The way teams lose in college basketball is they beat themselves and I think I did that tonight.