‘We should have won’: ASU collapses in second half, falls to USC
LAS VEGAS — Arizona State played the first 32 minutes of the Pac-12 tournament with the synchronicity it showed in earning the No. 5 seed.
Even though the Sun Devils did not shooting particularly well, they built a 14-point lead against last-place Southern California on Wednesday by rebounding, denying excessive penetration and taking care of the ball.
Sustaining those tenets became the issue.
USC concluded its 67-64 victory over ASU at the MGM Grand Garden Arena with a 21-4 run, a stunning end to a game that at times seemed a possession or two away from being a walkover in the other direction.
"I don’t know the feeling. I’ve never had it before," senior forward Jonathan Gilling said in a somber locker room. "The way we played the last half of the Pac-12 season. Of course we were favored to win this game. And we should have won. Now everything we worked for …"
An NIT invitation could be a possibility, but that was hardly consolation for an ASU group that was 9-5 since Jan. 16 and seemingly had found its mojo after a 0-4 start to the Pac-12 season.
In the end, the game was decided when USC got to the basket almost at will while holding the Sun Devils to one field goal and two free throws in the final nine minutes, after center Eric Jacobsen’s short shot from the lane gave the Sun Devils a 60-46 edge.
ASU’s one basket in that stretch, a drive by Shaquille McKissic through traffic from the right wing with 53 seconds left, cut USC’s lead to 65-64, and the Sun Devils got the ball back with a half-minute left after a Trojans miss.
ASU ran the same play after a timeout with 16.2 seconds left, but USC 6-foot-11 center Nikola Jovanovic stepped in to block McKissic’s shot and ASU was forced to foul. After two free throws, McKissic’s desperation 3-pointer from 35 feet hit backboard and rim but did not go in.
"I don’t really know how to explain how it evaporated so quickly besides lack of hustle, energy. I don’t know how that happened," McKissic said. "It’s been the name of the game all year. Some player on the other team steps up, however many points."
The Sun Devils had trouble at times finding USC freshman guard Elijah Stewart, who set career highs in points and 3-pointers. Stewart made 6-of-9 3-pointers, several coming on semi-set shots more a than a few feet beyond the 3-point line, and finished with 27 points. His final 3 pulled USC to within five points, 60-55, with 4:44 remaining.
"We were trying to find him," ASU guard Barnes said. "We just didn’t help each other on defense. And then once a good player gets going like that, they are in rhythm and they make shots they normally don’t hit."
At the same time, USC did not take control until it was able got to the rim time and again on its last possessions. Guard Julian Jacobs got past Tra Holder for two layups and an assist on a Jovanovic basket, and his last layup gave USC a 65-62 lead, completing a 10-0 run with 1:16 remaining.
"Julian was in attack mode," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "Julian is one of the best I’ve seen in getting in the lane and using his body and athleticism to attack the rim. And he was able to do that."
USC made 12 of its last 16 field goal attempts. ASU made one of its last 13.
"They were living in the paint," said senior Barnes, who had 15 points and made 3-of-6 3-point attempts. "They were getting to the paint whenever they wanted. Couldn’t guard anybody. We weren’t making shots and they just slowly caught up."
ASU beat USC in Tempe, 61-56, despite shooting only 32.8 percent from the field against USC’s switching zone defense. The Sun Devils shot 35.4 percent Wednesday. USC shot 52.2 percent for the game, 57.7 percent in the second half.
"I thought our defense certainly did not meet standards or expectations in the second half," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "We had a number of I thought pretty good looks and we didn’t convert."
McKissic had 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting and nine rebounds, and forward Savon Goodman added 10 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals. Jacobsen had eight points and seven rebounds. Holder, who sat out the final 10:34 of the first half with two fouls, had six points and three assists.
ASU had difficulty getting into its offense down the stretch.
"We were just passive in the zone," said Gilling, who had three points on 1-of-4 shooting from 3-point range. "They played some weird zone, I didn’t know what it was. It made us passive. We just stood and passed the ball around, which was not very good."
USC: The Trojans had lost their last four Pac-12 tournament games. … USC made 7 of 13 from 3-point range.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils had 20 offensive rebounds that led to 11 second-chance points and scored 22 points off USC’s 17 turnovers.
USC faces fourth-seeded UCLA in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
Arizona State is hoping for a NIT bid.