Win over Cal nets ASU fifth seed in Pac-12

In a season comprised of fits of anger and yells of excitement, Arizona State's win against California Saturday afternoon was a microcosm of the hard fought season the Sun Devils endured.

Much like their early year start, the Sun Devils scratched and clawed back from a big hole they put themselves in. They were 0-4 to star Pac-12 play before winning nine of their next 14 and on Saturday, after being down 10 points down early in the first half they finishing with a result they could be reasonably proud of.

In an up and down contest, ASU beat Cal 74-70 in front of 5,619 at Wells Fargo Arena to clinch the No. 5 seed for the Pac-12 Tournament with Stanford’s loss to Arizona Saturday afternoon.

ASU finished the regular season 17-14, 9-9 after starting out 0-4 in Pac-12 play, an impressive feat by a team made up of newcomers galore.

Cal finished 17-14, 7-11 on the season.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been part of a team that improved more over the course of a season,” ASU head coach Herb Sendek said. “Our team obviously has a lot of newcomers and roles took a certain amount of time to be determined.”

ASU has grown up from the young team it was to start the season who had different starting lineups seemingly every night and was on the constant chase to find a true point guard to lead the way.

Once Sendek and his staff decided on freshman point guard Tra Holder to be the staring point guard after freshman point guard Kodi Justice went out with injury at the end of January, the play of Holder improved as well as the team as a whole.

“Obviously I think another thing that has been a big difference for us was Tra (Holder) taking the reins at point guard,” Sendek said. “You know early on, he and Kodi (Justice) were freshman, we were trying to se if (junior guard) Gerry (Blakes) could play there and once we got that settled, that was another real key of the development of our basketball team.”

Holder finished only with four points in the game Saturday, but dished out six assists and controlled the tempo of the Sun Devil offense.

In addition to Holder being one of, if not the most improved player on the Sun Devil roster, the addition of sophomore forward Savon Goodman towards the end of non-conference play provided a big lift for ASU.

“Obviously you can see what a difference Savon makes on our basketball team so we played all but the last couple of our non-conference games without Savon and then it obviously took him a few games to get going. His first game was Marquette and he fouled out in seven minutes,” Sendek said.

Goodman finished with 18 points on 8 of 13 shooting from the field, also grabbing down eight rebounds in Saturday’s contest.

After scoring six points in the first half, Goodman scored his final 12 points in the second half and was the catalyst in sparking an early 8-0 ASU run to start the second half.

Another dominating figure of the second half was ASU senior guard Shaquielle McKissic.

McKissic turned up the heat in the second, tallying 21 total points after scoring nine points in the first half. It was McKissic’s second straight double-digit game.

“My two years here have been awesome and it’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced,” McKissic said. “You guys all know my background, but even we (senior guard Bo Barnes and senior forward Jonathan Gilling) were talking in the locker room and they were like, ‘We didn’t think you were going to play a second last year,’ it was just I had to learn so much new stuff and you know I love every second of it.”

But out of all the standout performers this season for ASU, it was Barnes, who was honored last year at Senior Day as well, to show late-game heroics seemingly time and again, and he did so again Saturday.

After ASU had missed seven straight free throws down the stretch on Saturday against Cal, Barnes made four clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds of the game to keep Cal at bay and hold on for the ASU victory.

“I don’t want to hear the stats, because it will just add to my insanity, but with all the close games we’ve played, all the tough loses you know, not that it’s an oversimplification to look at free throws, but you can’t help yourself and your mind can’t help but go there,” Sendek said. “And if had we been along the way, better able to convert free throws we would be in an even better position because that’s really been you know an issue for us, glaringly.”

Barnes has been a nice surprise for the Sun Devils the past two seasons, becoming known as a three-point specialist and knocking down clutch shots to win games after starting his career sitting on the bench with minimal if any contribution to the team. At one point following the conclusion of last season, Barnes said he wasn't going to be back, and this was actually the second senior day experience he participated in.

“It was good to get rewarded for how hard you work,” Barnes said. “I’m glad I got to finish out my career with these two seniors. I grew close to them these last couple years and I’m glad I got to stay and finish it.”

In a game filled with runs and cold-shooting streaks, ASU came out of the gates cold, letting Cal go on a 9-0 run to start the game, but ASU came back from being down by 10 with 13:08 left in the first half to go up by three points, 35-32 at halftime.

“After falling behind early, I was very proud of how our guys kept their poise and defended the last two-thirds of the first half,” Sendek said. “That was our best segment of defense.”

Cal started the game scathing hot from the field, shooting 10 of 12 to start the game, but finished the first half 3 of 21 from the field.

“It all starts with stops,” Barnes said. “When we get stops it fuels our transition game.”

ASU was 12 of 26 from the field, shooting 46.2 percent in the first half.

Taking advantage of Cal’s poor shooting and sloppiness with the ball down the stretch, ASU managed to take its first lead of the game, 28-26, off a layup by junior guard Gerry Blakes with 5:09 left in the first half.

Blakes led the way for the Sun Devils in the first half, scoring 12 points on 5 of 6 from the field and grabbed down three rebounds.

ASU had seven blocks in the game with junior post-player Eric Jacobsen accounting for five of them.

Jacobsen again had a quiet day for the Sun Devils offensively, unable to convert point-blank layups, going 1 for 5 in the game, but his defensive presence aided the Sun Devils in a multitude of ways.

Despite the offensive troubles from Jacobsen, ASU again won in paint points, 42-34, and found another way to win besides hitting the three-point shot.

ASU was 3 of 9 from behind the three-point arc on the game.

Gilling and Barnes, who elected not to start the game on Senior Day, finished with zero points and nine points respectively.

“When you get a whole new group of guys, it’s hard to win, especially at the Division I level and we got four JUCO guys,” McKissic said. “I played at JUCO and it’s just not the same. The pace, everything, you got to learn so much different lingo and it was just growing pains and hopefully we got that out of the way.”

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