Sun Devils thriving with bigger lineup

ASU guard Tra Holder (0), forward Savon Goodman (11) and forward Eric Jacobsen celebrate the win over UCLA.

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE — Not too long ago, Arizona State was hesitant to play big men Savon Goodman and Eric Jacobsen together. Matchups were one issue. Foul trouble was another. So was finding a fit. It is safe to say the growing pains are over.

The success of the bigger lineup has given ASU another way to win, as it showed in a 68-66 Pac-12 victory over UCLA on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Arena.

Goodman, a physical 6-foot-6, continued on his recent roll around the basket with 20 points and 12 rebounds, his fourth double-double of the season and second in a row. He and the 6-11 Jacobsen combined to play 65 minutes as the Sun Devils, not coincidentally, posted a 39-27 rebounding edge, out-rebounding the best offensive rebounding team in the league.

"Our team becomes different when we have Savon and Eric in the game together," ASU coach Herb Sendek said.

"The way our team is built, we could play a couple of different ways. We could have a very perimeter-oriented team on the floor. Obviously with Savon and Eric in together, it fortifies our rebounding and our defense. Those guys have become much more comfortable playing offense together."

The Sun Devils (14-12, 6-7) do seem to be getting better, and good. They have won six of their last nine games, including an 81-78 victory over then-No. 6 Arizona on Feb. 7.

"We got killed on the boards tonight," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "It’s been a long time since we’ve been hammered on the glass like that and they hammered us."

ASU just might be playing its way into a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. They are one game out of a tie for fourth place in a jumbled Pac-12 race behind co-leaders Arizona and Utah. UCLA (18-9, 8-6) is alone in fourth, for at least one more day. The top four teams get byes on the first day of the league tourney.

ASU 68, UCLA 66

Tra Holder had 13 points and seven assists and Shaquielle McKissic had 14 points for ASU, which was more perimeter-oriented through most of the season.

The Sun Devils are their most efficient from distance when reserve wing players Jonathan Gilling and Bo Barnes are on the floor. ASU made 14 3-pointers against Maryland and 12 against Texas A&M in nonconference play but lost both those games. ASU made 10 threes apiece against Colorado and California in Pac-12 victories, but twice made nine threes in Pac-12 losses.

Goodman has a stronger inside presence than Gilling, giving the Sun Devils a very different look.

"If the only way you can win is if your team makes 10 threes, you become limited," Sendek said. "What I like about the evolution of our team is, we’re finding ways to get better and we’re also finding ways other than making a lot of 3-point shots to win a game."

The Sun Devils will continue to mine the perimeter. They were 5 of 17 from behind the arc against UCLA, and Barnes returned from missing a game with a sprained ankle to hit two in the second half. The second, a 27-footer with just under five minutes remaining, gave ASU a 61-57 lead that eventually grew to 66-60 on two Holder free throws with 1:41 remaining

ASU twice made one-of-two free throws on later possessions to nurse the lead through to the end, and the Bruins could not get a shot after Holder’s last free throws with 6.8 seconds left.

ASU limited Bryce Alford to 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting, showing every time Alford tried to use a screen. Goodman was an integral part of that defensive scheme, and he said the Sun Devils had a simple plan against UCLA’s twin 6-foot-9 inside players, Tony Parker and Kevin Looney.

"Our whole thing was, we have to hit them before they hit us," Goodman said.

ASU’s two bigs just needed time to learn each other, they said.

"The spacing is different. There are two of us down there. I think we are starting to click," Jacobsen said. "The way we run picks-and-rolls is different. When you catch the ball in the paint there is less room, so there is different stuff that we do to work off of each other."

That Goodman did not gain his eligibility until Dec. 16 added to the learning curve.

"You put a group of guys in from different areas, it’s not going to be an overnight thing that we mesh," Goodman said.

"I give all the credit to Coach Herb for trusting us to play off each other out there. Neither of us are really shooters, and he has Jon on the bench, who is a senior. I think it’s a win-win. Teams have to deal with us on the boards and we’re not giving up easy baskets on the defensive end. We do a pretty good job of running the floor, playing the high-low game, helping our guards get to the basket.

The Sun Devils meet last-place USC on Sunday with a chance to get to .500 for the first time in conference play.

"The Arizona win really turned our season around, energy-wise and coming together," Goodman said.

"I’m not looking to predict anything. We’re taking it one game at a time. We’re looking at every opponent as an NCAA tournament game. We’re trying to get every victory we can."

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