Men's Basketball Rallies, But Falls Short Against No. 1 Arizona, 71-63

By Brian Gomez,

TUCSON -- Arizona State men's basketball head coach Rob Evans showed Wednesday night that the gap separating his team and its archrival is slowly shrinking.

Sparked by an offensive outburst in the second half, the Sun Devils turned what had the makings of being a cakewalk for the No. 1-ranked Wildcats into one of their toughest tests of the season. The end result wasn't the one Evans was searching for, but when all was said and done, his point had been conveyed despite ASU's 71-63 loss to UA before a capacity crowd of 14,567 at McKale Center.

'This team is a team that never quits,' said Evans, whose squad's five losses to the Wildcats in Tucson have come by a combined 40 points. 'I'm proud of all these guys for the way they battled back. In the past, the Sun Devils would have folded, but this team will never fold.'

The competitive game sparked even more life into a rivalry that some say has lacked its luster in recent years. From UA's blistering run out of the gates to ASU's furious comeback down the stretch to a confrontation in the game's waning moments, there was all the glamour and pageantry of a classic in-state battle.

'The only reason everybody says it's not a rivalry is because they've got the crowd behind them,' said Sun Devil senior shooting guard Curtis Millage, who finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the field in 40 minutes. 'You don't worry about the crowd. You've got to worry about the five guys that are out there playing.'

ASU (12-6, 4-3 Pac-10) looked dead in the water when facing a 26-point deficit early in the second half. But then the Sun Devils seemed as if they suddenly got a jolt of life injected into them and they went on a scoring spree unlike any other seen through 18 games this season.

The run started with 10 consecutive points -- four apiece by Millage and freshman forward Ike Diogu and two by senior forward Shawn Redhage -- over a three-minute stretch in which senior forward Tommy Smith fouled out. After going to the free-throw line only five times before intermission, ASU attacked the basket with more regularity in the second half.

The Sun Devils slowed the pace of the game, preventing the Wildcats (14-1, 7-0) from gaining momentum and allowing them to get settled on defense. Redhage's pair of free throws cut the margin to 13 points with 8:12 remaining.

'When you play your in-state rival, you want to put them away,' said UA senior forward Luke Walton, who had 13 points and five assists on 6-for-10 shooting from the field. 'But they did a good job of fighting back and getting back into it. ASU is one of the better teams in the Pac-10 this year.'

The Sun Devils climbed to within five points with 5:13 left on the strength of an array of three-pointers that quickly sent the Wildcats out of their zone defense. ASU junior guard Kenny Crandall, who had a season-high 12 points, sank three shots from beyond the arc and Millage connected on a trey from the wing.

'In the second half, they tested us well,' said UA head coach Lute Olson, whose team was 8-for-15 (53.3 percent) from the charity stripe after the break. 'We forced too many shots and we forced some drives into crowds. We took too many quick shots, especially some one-pass shots, and that is not very smart basketball.'

The Sun Devils could have sliced into the lead even further on their ensuing possession, but senior guard Kyle Dodd misfired on a three-pointer. The Wildcats went ahead 63-56 with 4:01 to go when sophomore center Channing Frye scored two of his 13 points on a reverse lay-up after Walton rebounded senior guard Jason Gardner's miss.

Redhage tossed in a reverse lay-up of his own on the other end to trim the deficit to five points with 3:06 remaining. ASU had three chances to pull to within one possession of the lead, but Crandall couldn't knock down a hanging floater in the paint, Dodd was off the mark on a pull-up jumper and Millage's three-point attempt was too long.

That's when Redhage collided with senior forward Rick Anderson when pursuing a loose ball under his team's basket. Angered by the foul, Anderson decked Redhage with an elbow to the jaw. After Redhage hit the floor in pain, Evans and Olson both yelled vehemently at the officials.

'From my angle, I just saw Anderson swing around and hit Shawn, but I guess that wasn't the case,' Crandall said.

Regardless of the extracurricular activity when the game was out of reach, the Sun Devils wouldn't have been in that situation had they not played so poorly in the first half. ASU turned the ball over 11 times and was held to 20 points on 25 percent (8-for-32) shooting from the field.

'If we would have played better in the first half, who knows who wins the game,' Diogu said. 'There's no question the game would have been different.'

Gardner paced the Wildcats with 19 points on 5-of-11 shooting from the field, including a 3-for-6 effort from beyond the arc. He also hauled down a game-high seven rebounds.

Diogu, who turned the ball over six times, attempted only six shots in 39 minutes, but still managed to score 15 points on a 9-for-11 outing from the line. Redhage finished with 10 points and six rebounds.

KNIGHT STILL SIDELINED: After missing two days of practice this week while an 'academic matter' was being resolved, Sun Devil senior forward Donnell Knight did not accompany his teammates to Tucson on Wednesday.

GAME NOTES: UA leads the all-time series 129-73...The Wildcats have won 19 of their past 20 home games against ASU, including 15 of the last 16 overall...Smith, sophomore point guard Jason Braxton and junior swingman Jamal Hill were a combined 0-for-12 from the field...Diogu has made more free throws (116) this year than any other Pac-10 player has attempted...Smith hasnotched 40 assists in the past 10 games.

UP NEXT: The Sun Devils are scheduled to return to action at 7 p.m. MST Thursday when they host California at Wells Fargo Arena. The Golden Bears (12-2, 5-0) have won six straight games, including nine of their last 10. The game is not televised.

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