A Jahii Carson lay-up with 10:26 remaining in the game pulled Arizona State within two, 46-44, setting the scene for another potentially high drama finish between the Wildcats and Sun Devils for the second consecutive year in Tempe. However, a fourth personal foul on Carson just moments later would send the Arizona State playmaker to the bench and ultimately take the Sun Devils' hopes of knocking off seventh ranked Arizona with him.
An 11-0 run by the Wildcats over the next four minutes, with Carson mostly watching from the sidelines, allowed the Arizona to slowly pull away from the exhausted and overwhelmed Sun Devil team as chants from the UofA faithful filled Wells Fargo Arena. By the time Carson re-entered the game, there was very little fight left in the Sun Devils as Arizona ended the game on a 25-7 run.
"I think it changed the tempo tremendously," said Carson afterwards of the fourth foul. "I think it had a huge swing. Guys have to step up and guard smaller guys that they're not used to guarding. They're used to having me step up and do that. I just think the tempo changed when I had four fouls."
Even prior to tip-off, the Sun Devils found themselves at a disadvantage when it was announced that senior reserve Chris Colvin had been suspended for violating team rules. Yet, the Sun Devils hung close throughout the first half behind the inspired play of shooting guard Evan Gordon and his backcourt mate Carson.
The two combined for 23 of the team's 26 first half points, including a Gordon steal and slam dunk that brought the Sun Devils within three at the break.
"Evan played an excellent game offensively," said Head Coach Herb Sendek. "Even defensively he had the big steal right before the half to give us a little momentum going into the break. We were pretty much limited to what Jahii and Evan were able to muster this afternoon."
Carson would finish with a team-high 22 points - his third consecutive 20 point game, including four rebounds and two steals. Gordon was the only other Sun Devil to reach double figures with 14 points on 6-11 shooting.
The Wildcats smothered ASU defensively, forcing the Sun Devils into a dismal 39% shooting from the field overall and 17 turnovers. The Sun Devils had averaged just 11.1 turnovers in their previous 11 games and it was the most turnovers by Arizona State since they had 18 against Arkansas Pine Bluff on November 28th.
"They are a good defensive team but I’d like to think that we control our turnovers more than our opponent does," commented Sendek. "Obviously you don’t need to look too far beyond that number to see why we struggled. Seventeen turnovers in a game like this is far too many and that was a significant factor in the game."
Perhaps the most affected Sun Devil on Saturday was none other than senior leader Carrick Felix, who struggled mightily to find his rhythm against the long, athletic Wildcats. While playing the full 40 minutes, Felix only collected five points - snapping a string of 16 consecutive games of double digit scoring for the forward - to go along with his five rebounds and seven turnovers.
"I just needed to show up for my team and I didn't do that today," said Felix. “I think I just kind of did it to myself. The way teams lose in college basketball is they beat themselves and I think I just did that today."
Felix finished just 1-8 from the field, including 1-7 from behind the three point line, settling more for the contested outside shot instead of attacking the rim as he's done routinely this season.
"I think I definitely settled for the three a bit more today," he said. "I didn't play my usual game, attacking the rim and just playing within the offense. That's definitely something that I've got to look back and watch some film on and get back to the old me."
Despite their best effort, it was clear the Sun Devils lacked the stamina to withstand the attacking Wildcat offense as the second half wore on. Foul trouble, a shortened rotation and a talented Arizona squad made it too much for ASU to counter.
Arizona controlled the paint on Saturday, limiting Sun Devil center Jordan Bachynski to just six points while outscoring ASU by 14 in the paint. The Wildcats also controlled the boards, out rebounding the Sun Devils by six, including eight offensive rebounds leading to 10 second chance points for the visors.
"I don't think we played to the best of or capabilities," said Carson "Normally we come out and set the tempo and throw the first punch and I think they did that. I think they wanted it more than us.
"I was excited to come out here and play. I know a lot of my teammates were excited but sometimes emotions flare and things change on the court. I just think that we struggled for the most part."
Arizona was led by its backcourt duo of Mark Lyons and Phoenix native Nick Johnson. Lyons poured in a game-high 24 points while Nick Johnson helped ignite the Wildcats with 19 of his own on 7-13 shooting.
Not only was it Carson's first taste of the rivalry, after sitting out last season, but his first time matching up against his childhood friend, Johnson, on the college level. Their relationship aside, Carson insisted that he was focused on the game itself and not worried about the individual matchup.
"He's a friend of mine, but when it comes game time, I wasn't worried about him or what he was doing," Carson remarked. "I was worried about winning the basketball game. It's cool that we're friends growing up, but when we step on the floor its game time--I want to cut his head off and I'm pretty sure he wants to cut off mine.
"I was happy for him, of course, always. I was just more disappointed that we didn't get the win and compete the way I thought we should have."
The Sun Devils will look to regroup next week and snap their two game losing skid when the Trojans visit Wells Fargo Arena on Thursday at 8:30 PM.