TEMPE, Ariz. – No more talk about an NCAA tournament at-large berth.
That hope died an ignominious death Saturday in the Wells Fargo Arena, a demise witnessed by just 5,153, many of whom probably came expecting to see Arizona State extend its 11-game Pac-10 Conference losing streak.
Instead that was also buried.
It was done in by another Washington State lackluster first half, a Cougar rally that got over the hump but slipped back, too many missed free throws and, ultimately, a 71-69 Arizona State win, only its second in conference play.
“It feels like it right now,” coach Ken Bone answered when asked if it was the worst loss of the season, a defeat that dropped WSU to 17-10 overall and 7-8 in conference.
Asked what it would take to revive the Cougars’ at-large hopes, Klay Thompson made a sound that sounded suspiciously like a bubble bursting, then said, “Take it game by game. That’s all we can do. … If we dwell on (the loss) it will just snowball.”
Thompson, with 24 second-half points, had the biggest hand in the comeback for WSU, which overcame a deficit that reached 16 points two minutes after halftime.
But he also played a role in the Cougars’ glacial start, benched for the first 5 minutes, 47 seconds because he was late for the pregame bus. It was Thompson’s second time not starting at WSU and both were for the same basic infraction.
“I lost my i-Pod, so I was stressing there,” he said when asked why he was late.
The Cougars were also without second-leading scorer Faisal Aden, sent home early to begin rehabilitation on a balky left knee that flared up again Friday. ASU (10-16, 2-12) was missing even more, with senior starters Ty Abbott (shoulder) and Rihards Kuksiks (ankle) out.
But the freshmen – Chanse Creekmur and Corey Hawkins – Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek inserted into his starting lineup for the first time injected an energy WSU didn’t match.
“We didn’t come out ready to play and it might have cost ourselves, but you can’t put it on that. There were still 20 minutes left in the second half and we couldn’t get it done,” said Abe Lodwick, who had a shot – the game’s last one – to repay the debt. But his 23-footer hit the front of the rim and slid past at the buzzer.
“I’ll take a wide-open look for Abe any day. You can’t blame it one shot,” said Thompson, who took a career-high 28 of them, hitting 11, including 4-of-12 3-point attempts to get his game-high 28 points.
No, it was also 10 missed second-half free throws, though Thompson hit both the one time he got to the line.
But despite the lethargic, error-plagued first half – WSU had 12 turnovers and allowed ASU to shoot 51.9 percent – and despite the free-throw problems, an aggressive attitude brought the Cougars back. That, and Thompson hit 7-of-9 shots in one stretch.
The Cougars finally regained the lead – they were last up 7-6 just over 3 minutes in – at 57-56 on Lodwick’s third 3-pointer with 7:30 left. And they led 62-61 on DeAngelo Casto’s three-point play with 4:15 on the clock.
Then nothing went right. Five empty possessions included two turnovers, a Thompson misfire, two missed Will DiIorio free throws – part of a stretch of 9 misses in 15 tries – and another missed field goal, this one from short range by DiIorio.
DiIorio, the walk-on whose previous high in minutes was 13, took much of Aden’s usual time and chipped in four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 20 minutes.
“He gave us what he gives us in practice, energy and effort,” Bone said, before turning to the short miss. “Will read the situation right, and he usually scores those. Unfortunately, he didn’t score that one.”
After that shot, with 1:04 left, ASU led 66-62. The Devils took advantage, stretching the lead to six on two Trent Lockett free throws, part of his team-high 20 points.
But in the final 46 seconds ASU missed 3 of 6 free throws. WSU took advantage, with Thompson nailing a 3 and Lodwick hitting two free throws after Thompson misfired twice from long range.
When Creekmur hit just one of two free throws with 5.8 seconds left – he did hit 5 of 8 3-pointers and had a career-high 18 points – WSU still had a chance to rise from the grave.
Reggie Moore, who had eight early points and finished with 12, drove and Jamelle McMillan cut him off, so he kicked it out to an open Lodwick.
“Try to find Klay, but drive and try to find the open situation,” Bone said of the final play. “Can’t ask for a whole lot better. Abe had hit three. He might have been the best guy to get it to, really. Had a pretty good look.”
“I thought it was in,” Lodwick said.