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Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
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Saturday / December 15.
  • Deandre Ayton, Arizona Hand Rival Arizona State First Loss of Season

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    By: MIKE McCURRY

    In the most anticipated version of the Grand Canyon State rivalry since the 1994-1995 season, Arizona reminded Arizona State that the road to the Pac-12 title, though more congested on the local lanes this year, continues to run thru Tucson.

    On the strength of Deandre Ayton’s 23-point, career-high 19-rebound performance and Allonzo Trier’s 23 points, No. 17 Arizona held serve at home at the McKale Center by outlasting No. 3 and previously unbeaten Arizona State, 84-78.

    Saturday began with three undefeated teams. It will end with none.

    No. 10 TCU fell victim to Trae Young and No. 12 Oklahoma. Then top-ranked Villanova spit the bit at Butler. Arizona completed the triumvirate, extending its winning streak to eight in the process.

    Let’s call it what it is: Arizona was supposed to win this game. They were home. They were favored. And the Wildcats took care of business, namely for three reasons:

    • Ayton, the 7-foot-1 Bahamian freshman who is very much in the mix to be the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, was a man amongst boys. We figured that could be the case against an undersized and small ball-oriented Sun Devils team, and it was. Romello White, tasked with guarding Ayton for most of the evening, fouled out at the 4:50 mark and finished with just two points, 13 below his average.

    • Trier came to life after an abysmal start. He missed his first six shots. He didn’t enter the scorers’ column until the 1:28 mark of the first half. You can only keep the preseason First-Team All-American down for so long, though. Trier found his rhythm, got to the free throw line (where he was 10-of-10), and scored 18 of his 23 in the second half.
     

    • Arizona defended at a level that I’m not sure they were capable of, at least on Saturday against an explosive Arizona State attack led by Tra Holder, who was his usual phenomenal self, popping off for 31 points on just 12 shots (he made 15-of-16 free throws!). Arizona allowed a stingy 1.03 points-per-possession—ASU’s second-lowest output of the season—while holding the Sun Devils to under 40% shooting for the first time all year. Can some of that be chalked up to a combination of Arizona State partially regressing to the mean, missing some shots they usually make and playing in front of a raucous crowd in a rivalry game? Sure. But Sean Miller and company have made some very real strides defensively over the last few weeks, and that was none more apparent than Saturday, when—in addition to White’s no-show—the backcourt duo of Shannon Evans and Kodi Justice combined for only 13 points (they average a collective 31 points per game) on 5-of-23 shooting, including a putrid 2-for-14 line from beyond the arc.
    As for Arizona State, it’s impossible not to be blown away by Bobby Hurley’s squad, one that was picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 this season.

    Holder is the best point guard in the league and one of the best in the country. Aside from him, ASU has a multitude of options that can take over a game at any moment, mainly Evans and sixth man Remy Martin. Mickey Mitchell, just five games into his Sun Devils tenure upon transferring from Ohio State, is the ultimate glue guy, bringing a point-forward mentality, high-IQ, and defensive intensity to the table. Further help in a thin frontcourt will come in the form of Kimani Lawrence, a four-star freshman that could make his collegiate debut as soon as next week after suffering a stress fracture in his left foot in the preseason.

    The Sun Devils play a fun, fast style, can arguably consider themselves a top-5 offense in America, and have a slightly higher defensive ceiling than their 101st adjusted defensive efficiency ranking suggests.

    Which is great for the state of Arizona basketball and the Pac-12 as a whole. Hurley was an animated as ever on the sidelines and even jarred with fans on Saturday. Miller is far from the reticent type himself. Ayton received a technical for elbowing Evans. The two best teams this season in the Conference of Champions hate each other’s guts and happen to be separated by a 90-minute drive.

    Because I know you were wondering, the rematch is set for February 15.

    Photo: Arizona Daily Star

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