The Sun Devils are no stranger to disappointment in the Pac-12 Tournament, but may have found a new low Wednesday with an opening round loss to league-worst USC before eight other teams in the league had even played their first game.
After leading by 14 points with nine minutes left, ASU wilted under the pressure of a USC zone and couldn't get any stops on the defensive end of the floor.
Calamity kept getting closer for the Sun Devils until it arrived with the harsh sound of a final buzzer that announced the Trojans a 67-64 winner.
The Sun Devils dropped to 17-15 overall and 9-10 in league games, including the conference tournament. They'll now await word on whether they've done enough to earn a NIT Tournament bid, and hope the committee overlooks what has to be their worst loss since Lehigh in December at Wells Fargo Arena.
USC improved to 12-19 and 4-15 and will play No. 4 seed UCLA Thursday evening.
Minutes after the game, ASU players still seemed stunned by what had transpired.
"It's been the name of the game all year," senior wing Shaquielle McKissic said. "Some player on the other team always steps up to torch us for however many points. We had a 15 point lead, I don't really know how to explain how it evaporated so quickly other than a lack of hustle, energy and effort."
In this case, there were multiple somebodies. Freshman Elijah Stewart had 27 points including 6 of 9 on three-point field goals, but down the stretch it was one driving basket after another -- three total over a two minute stretch from 3:15 remaining until 1:15 left -- by USC sophomore guard Julian Jacobs that ultimately did in the Sun Devils.
McKissic led the Sun Devils with 16 points but needed 18 shots to get there and came up empty through contact and contested layup on a number of occasions. Senior Bo Barnes had 15 points for ASU and was 3 of 6 from three-point range. The team only made two other three-pointers in the game.
ASU went from up seven points with 4:11 left in the game to down 65-62 at the 1:15 mark, a stretch of nearly four minutes without a point. Meanwhile, USC almost couldn't miss, converting 15 of 26 second half attempts from the field.
"I thought our defense certainly did not meet standards or expectations in the second half," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "Our opponent almost shot 58 percent. So if you're going to do that hopefully you're converting at the other end, but it was just the opposite. We shot 62 percent from the foul line, 5 for 22 from [three-point range]. We had some pretty good looks and couldn't convert. In those situations your defense has to lock down for you."
The loss for ASU was not just stunning because of the way in which it happened or to whom. Remarkable, the Sun Devils easily lead in paint points, second chance points, points off turnovers and bench points. They forced seven more turnovers, had seven more steals, 13 more offensive rebounds,, two more blocks, and two more assists.
And still, they lost.
"We were getting good looks but just couldn't make any but we weren't getting stops at the other end which was the big thing that hurt us," Barnes said.
Earlier, things went much better for the Sun Devils. They took great care of the basketball in the first half and freshman point guard Tra Holder managed the game extremely well. ASU took a 10 point lead into halftime, 38-28, and was able to stretch it a bit though the first 11 minutes of the second half.
But USC coach Ernie Enfield slowly became aware that his mixed defenses weren't nearly as effective as the zone he was blending in, and went he changed to purely zone down the stretch, the Sun Devils had no answer.
"We never relaxed or felt like, 'boy, we have this game,' Sendek said. "That's not part of our DNA. If anything we went the other way and as they cut the lead to single digits we tightened up a bit.
"Whether it was a key turnover, a missed free throw, one play or under, the lead quickly went back under double digits. What seemed to be a pretty good margin evaporated rather rapidly."
In the last couple months, the Sun Devils built up some goodwill and looked to be trending well, with wins in nine of their final 14 regular season Pac-12 games to move up the standings and finish in the No. 5 spot. The question now is how much of that is undone by this loss.
"Any time you lose you don't feel good about it," Sendek said. "But I would say this team improved from the beginning of the year to the end of the year as much as any squad we've had. You can say that same thing from the start of conference play through the end of the regular season. These guys have been very consistent with their attitudes, their work ethic. I've had a great deal of job being in the gym with them. Collectively, as well as with certain individuals, the improvement has been significant and dramatic. We lost a close game today. That never feels good. But I don't think that in and of itself takes away from the progress they made or the effort they had with some good wins though the season as well."