Two days after its best conference win of the season, Arizona State had an opportunity to make up more ground on its Pac-12 peers Sunday at home against a UCLA team it was narrowly favored to beat.
Sometimes though, it's two steps forward, one step back. The Sun Devils created plenty of open shots early in the second half of a close contest, but missed enough that by crunch time, the game was already out of reach.
With 2:34 remaining, ASU coach Bobby Hurley put several walk-ons into the game and most of the 6,710 fans in attendance on Valentine's Day at Wells Fargo Arena had already headed for the exits of the 78-65 UCLA victory. ASU fell to 14-12 overall and 4-9 in league play while UCLA improved to 14-11 and 7-5 in the Pac-12.
"I really felt like we were on the verge of something after Friday night and like has happened most of this year, there's progress and there's regression and we regressed again tonight," a visibly frustrated Hurley said in his post-game press conference. "But you have to give credit to UCLA as well. Their players stepped up."
ASU sophomore guard Tra Holder made his only three-point of the night on the team's first possession of the second half to give the Sun Devils a 38-37 lead, but it turned out to be their only lead of the second half.
Following a layup by senior Gerry Blakes at 18:03 that cut the Bruins' lead to 43-40 -- Blakes' only made field goal of the night -- the Sun Devils missed 10 straight field goal attempts over a five and a half minute span. That stretch included missed layups by three ASU players, including junior forward Savon Goodman, who not only missed a chip shot layup, but a routine follow-up put back attempt.
All told, the Sun Devils made just 10 of 30 field goal attempts inside the three-point line. They were actually better behind the three-point line, just not in the second half when it mattered.
Junior guard Andre Spight, who led ASU with a career-high 21 points off the bench, hit the team's final two three-point attempts of the night in garbage time. ASU made its first and final two three-pointers of the half, but missed nine of its 11 attempts in between as the Bruins went from down one point, to up by as many as 17 points with 1:48 left.
"In the second half we were just missing wide open shots, easy layups and the next thing you know we were down 13 trying to battle back," ASU sophomore guard Kodi Justice said. "They're a good team, it's hard to battle back when you're playing a good team like that.
"I felt like we had a couple wide open layups that we usually make those and they didn't go in. Corner threes, top of the key, pick and roll, the pop, the shots we usually hit, they didn't fall in the second half."
The Sun Devils further hurt themselves by committing 15 turnovers and making just 9 of 19 free throw attempts.
Hurley, who recounted how his team was 3 of 13 from the field at the second media timeout of the second half, was more blunt than Justice in his assessment of the Sun Devils' performance.
"Our turnovers, some of them were unexplainable out there and unacceptable and in games like this you can't afford that to go on," Hurley said. "As well as the missed free throws, the missed layups, the missed open three-point shots in the second half. It was a combination of a lot of things.
"Any time we had a sniff or really getting the game in a close margin we refused to make free throws or layups or open threes. It was a problem with our offense. Now, our defense wasn't that good either. As our offense started to suffer, our defense, especially in the lane, started to suffer."
The Bruins shot 49.2 percent from the field in the game, and put points on the board in a variety of ways. Star junior guard Bryce Alford scored just 10 points on 11 shots including 1 of 7 on 3-point attempts, but had 11 assists and seven rebounds. UCLA gets just 4.5 points per game from sophomore Jonah Bolden, but he had 16 Sunday to lead the team and also a team-high nine rebounds. Freshman guard Prince Ali is averaging 4.7 points per game off the bench, but had 12 in the game.
"Bryce has a double double, Bolden almost has a double double, Prince was huge off our bench," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "I just thought we has a lot of good play by a lot of people."
The Sun Devils initially looked as though they might build off Friday's impressive win over No. 23 USC. In the first half Sunday they made 7 of 13 pointers, led by Justice, who made his first three of the game, junior forward Obi Oleka, who had 14 points in the game, and Spight, who came off the bench to hit a couple. ASU led by as much as three points several times late in the first half before trailing 37-35 at intermission.
But the Sun Devils grew cold in the second half, and an inability to put the ball in the basket around the hoop once again proved limiting as the game wore on. Senior center Eric Jacobsen was largely ineffective early and played just 11 minutes for ASU, a season low. With Holder, Blakes and senior Willie Atwood -- who played with a brace on his shooting wrist after a hard fall versus USC -- shooting a combined 5 of 24, the Sun Devils didn't have much of a chance.
"We can't really effectively score around the basket agains teams like UCLA with their size and their length," Hurley said. "If you guys watched, and if we made more layups, you wouldn't see us shoot as many threes. But when you see us miss the volume of layups that we missed during a game, then you can see why we say, 'we're going to let these guys shoot a few more threes during the course of a game.'
ASU will travel to Tucson to play Arizona on Wednesday. The Wildcats beat USC 86-78 Sunday to move into a tie with Oregon in the Pac-12 at 9-4.