Tra Holder, Sun Devils sneak past Buffaloes to earn win

Conference play has started well for Arizona State as it improved to 2-1 in the Pac-12 with a win over Colorado at home on Thursday in a seesaw shootout that was sealed at the line with a pair of clutch free throws.

Shannon Evans' prayer was answered, but it was an Arizona State teammate who did the delivering. 

With the Sun Devils trailing by one point on the next to last possession of Thursday night's game against Colorado at Wells Fargo Arena, senior guard Torian Graham's three-point shot caromed awkwardly off the rim. Momentarily, it looked as though the Buffaloes would escape with a road win. Then Tra Holder sprung into action, literally.  

The junior guard had been quiet all night but not when he was needed most. Holder seemingly darted from nowhere to snag the rebound and almost immediately got a second shot back up toward the basket as the game clock neared its terminus. Then it stopped before the harsh horn of finality, Holder having been fouled by Colorado guard Derrick White with 1.6 seconds left.

"I don't know," Holder said, when asked how it happened. "At the end of games I just try to crash the boards and [the ball] just popped into my hand to be honest. I just tried to throw it up."

Evans, a junior guard who starts in the backcourt with Holder, looked up for help as the outcome held in the balance. 

"Please God, let Tra make these free throws," Evans said. "That's kind of what I was saying to myself."

Holder made both foul shots and Colorado's subsequent heave from its own background was blocked as time expired, securing a 78-77 victory for the Sun Devils over the Buffaloes that improved ASU's record to 9-7 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-12. The Buffaloes dropped to 10-5 overall and 0-2 in the league. 

He didn't know it at the time, but a decision Holder made a day earlier may have been the difference in the outcome.

"I shot a lot of free throws last night because I haven't been shooting as well as I wanted to," Holder said of the extra work, in which he claimed to have made 48 of 50 attempts. "I got a routine in my head and I just stuck with it and if they didn't fall I know it wasn't my night. But luckily, they did."

The Sun Devils entered the game third in the Pac-12 in free throw success at 75.1 percent, and needed all 10 of 11 they converted against the Buffaloes. The lone free throw they missed was the front end of a one-and-one by Obinna Oleka with ASU narrowly leading 76-75 with 1:10 remaining. 

ASU coach Bobby Hurley said afterward that he'd set up the final possession for a Graham isolation figuring that his team's leading scorer would get a good shot up at the rim. It didn't work out, but outcome of the game did nonetheless.

“Everyone will point to the play Tra made, and it was a terrific individual play and great awareness for him to go to the glass like that," Hurley said. "Then to step up to the free-throw line with that type of pressure and make two is not easy. I’m very proud of him. We knew Colorado was going to give us all we could want. It was a great game to watch and be a part of.”

Indeed, the lead changed 17 times, most of which came in the game's final 11 minutes. After ASU built its largest advantage of the game at 55-46 with 14:04 remaining, the Buffaloes went on a 10-0 run to take their first lead of the half at 56-55. Five of the points scored and one of the assisted baskets by Colorado during the run were from the hand of White, a senior guard who finished with a game-high 35 points.

The lead seesawed between the teams for the remainder of the game. Colorado and ASU each led on seven different occasions thereafter, but only the Sun Devils were on top when it mattered. 

“They took the lead on us, and our guys had a response,” Hurley said. “It’s exciting to see us play that well down the stretch. We got contributions from everyone that played so it was a very good, across the board, unified win."

Five ASU players scored in double figures, with Evans and Graham scoring 18 each to lead the team. They were followed by Oleka, a junior forward who had 15 points, Holder (11 on 3 of 14 shooting) and Justice (10). Oleka also had 10 rebounds, another double-double in a season in which he's averaging 13.3 points and 10.2 rebounds.

"It was great," Evans said. "We were trying to protect the home court. So a win like that, in a Pac-12 opponent, two free throws to end the game. It was just priceless, something I'll remember.

“We were trying to find a way to get a stop. That was one hell of a game, two good teams going at it. I felt whoever got the last shot was going to win so were preaching just try and get a stop, try to get a stop.”

Stops have been hard to come by for the Sun Devils, a team that is last in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense (47.1) and scoring defense (82.4). They didn't do much better on Thursday -- 45.8 percent and 77 points -- but the sliver of improvement over their averages proved to be the difference. 

The Buffaloes needed everything they got and more from White, who more than doubled his team-leading average of 15.0 points by making 10 of 20 from the field 3 of 6 from the three-point line and 12 of 12 from the free throw line.

One of the biggest reasons White needed such a performance was the ouster of Colorado's second leading scorer Xavier Johnson along with ASU freshman center Jethro Tshisumpa after a physical altercation between the two with 1:27 left in the first half.

Johnson, who averages 14 points, had 13 points at the time in just 15 minutes. Tshisumpa was playing well, having blocked three shots, but there's no doubt ASU benefited more from the Flagrant 2 ejections, even though it left Hurley with just seven healthy scholarship players. 

“My first thought was one body down now,” Hurley said. “And hoping the fouls don’t factor into the equation as the game progresses. They also lost in that exchange; Johnson was playing very well up to that point and is a heck of a player. You never like to see anything like that, but it’s a very physical game. Any time you have a hard contact foul like that and guys fall to the ground and get tangled up and you can lose it sometimes with the emotions. It’s a learning lesson for Jethro and I’m sure for their player as well.”

When starting freshman forward Ramon Vila fouled out with 5:37 left, the Buffaloes took a 68-67 lead at the free throw line, and Hurley had just one bench player he could call on, lightly used junior wing, Maurice O'Field. Even so, the Sun Devils found a way to win, something they haven't done as much of as they've wanted through the first half of their season.

"I was trying to preach to the guys, 'find an excuse to win,' Evans said. "It's easy to make excuses while we lose tough games. We lost a tough one at Cal. So I told them, 'guys, live in the moment. Tight game, back and forth, try to find an excuse to win.'"


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