Beating all five Arizona State players down the court with six minutes left in the first half, 6-foot-10, 230-pound Washington State senior center Josh Hawkinson emphatically slammed down a dunk for two of his career-high 31 points Sunday afternoon.
Hawkinson's dunk was two of 22 fast-break points for WSU in ASU's 91-83 loss to the Cougars and symbolic of a bigger problem for the Sun Devils: transition defense.
ASU head coach Bobby Hurley said it's something the team is able to control due to its tendency to play with four guards on the court and absence of big, physical players grabbing offensive rebounds every possession. However, it's just not getting done.
“We do it (transition defense) all the time," Hurley said. "We do it in practice, we do it in games, we watch the film. We make the adjustments, we talk about the urgency you need to sprint back regardless of a positive or a negative play and it’s just not there."
With the lack of transition defense -- giving up a 22-6 advantage in fast-break points -- the Sun Devils dropped to 10-12 overall and 3-6 in Pac-12 play in front of 5,554 in attendance at Wells Fargo Arena. ASU had won six straight games against WSU in Tempe coming into the game. The Cougars improved to 11-10 overall, 4-5 in conference play, breaking its six game losing streak this season.
“It’s a tough loss," Hurley said. "This one is going to sting especially in terms of where we were with the progress we had made and at the point we were at in the season, with it being a pivotal game for both teams again based on where the teams are in the standings.”
For the eighth time this season, ASU gave up at least 90 points, winning in only two of those contests. Once was against Citadel and the other against Stanford.
Hurley said as bad as the defense and the transition defense was on Sunday, the team just took "awful shots" in the second half.
“When you bomb shots when no one else expects you to take them and you miss them, that’s going to affect the mood of the team on defense and we did that plenty of times in the second half," Hurley said.
ASU senior forward Torian Graham took multiple ill-advised shots throughout the game, some at the very beginning of the shot clock, and finished the game with 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting from the field, 4-of-10 from behind the arc.
"They (ASU's five starters) are the guys who are out there and the guys who are having good offensive individual seasons," Hurley said. "Three guys in the top ten in scoring. Another guy averaging a double-double in conference. They are getting great individual success, but it has to translate into making plays at the right time in games, in key parts of games so that we have a chance to win and that will be the next step for the leadership core."
WSU's last win in Tempe came on Jan. 29, 2009 in a 65-55 win with WSU's then-freshman Klay Thompson scoring a then-career high 28 points and set a freshman record with eight made three-pointers.
On Sunday afternoon, WSU didn't have a sharp shooter on its team from behind the arc, but it did have Hawkinson. Hawkinson finished the game with 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field and was 9-of-9 from the free throw line.
“We knew that Hawkinson was going to be a problem wth his size and skills with this smaller lineup and I don’t think we really took advantage of him," Hurley said. "Good for him. He guarded. For a big guy he moved fairly well and stayed in front of our guards.”
Hawkinson lead the Cougars in scoring overall and was only averaging a team-high 15.3 points per game and 10.3 rebounds coming into the game. WSU senior guard Ike Iroegbu had 22 points for the Cougars on 6-of-14 shooting from the field.
The Sun Devils held a 40-37 halftime advantage after outscoring the Cougars 24-11 in the final nine minutes of the first half. Sparked by a quick 13-2 run capped off with a free throw by ASU forward Ramon Vila with 6:39 left in the first half, the Sun Devils took their first lead of the afternoon, 29-28.
However, ASU's lead didn't last long.
“I thought they were better than us really in the first half even though we lead at halftime," Hurley said. "The way we started the game was not good and affected our substitution patterns some.”
WSU went on a 15-5 run in less than four minutes after Graham hit a three-pointer to give ASU a 51-48 lead with 15:45 left in the second half.
"We couldn't stop them," Hurley said. "I think they made 10 out of 12 of their first shots in the second half. So if you allow a team to play that way when everyone is playing well and making shots all over the court then it's impossible to make a team not want to compete against you."
With a 63-56 advantage with 11:34 left in the second half, the Cougars kept the Sun Devils at bay and extended their lead to 11 points with 2:42 left in the second half off a three-pointer by WSU's Malachi Flynn. ASU tried to fight back in the waning minutes, cutting WSU's lead down to seven points, but couldn't overcome their own errors.
"I feel like sometimes we take bad shots, tough shots and it's kind of demoralizing and it transfers to defense and we don't play well as a team," ASU junior guard Shannon Evans said.
Despite the loss, ASU continued strong guard play behind Evans and junior guard Tra Holder. Holder finished Sunday's game with 27 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the field after leading the Sun Devils with 16 points in the first half. Evans had eight points in the first half before ending the game with 15 points on 6-of-13 shooting from the field.
"I feel like they wanted it more than we did," Evans said. "Maybe we weren't focused on defense. Maybe we were focused on the wrong thing whatever that was, but we needed to play harder."
ASU center Obinna Oleka recorded his 12th double-double this season with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He ties former ASU center Jordan Bachynski’s season record of 12 from the 2013-14 season.
"The leader is me and I have to take responsibility when my team doesn't play well and needs to play better," Hurley said. "Look, Washington State is not the old Washington State of last year. They are a good basketball team and they have good balance because of inside-out and they play together and they are well-coached and they deserve credit for what they did today."