Where to begin?
In a game that would leave either team second-guessing itself after a loss, it was the Arizona State Sun Devils who finally stepped up and made the big plays in a game that went long stretches without them. T.J. McConnell's last second runner was swatted away by Jordan Bachynski, who is making a knack of saving games late and the Sun Devils survived to pick up an enormous win for their NCAA hopes.
The story of the 69-66 win on Valentine's Day was the inability of either team to put together sustained stretches of execution leading to a game that went wire to wire, never seeing either team take a double digit lead. Both teams struggled throughout the first half to score and it wasn't until late in the first half that Nick Johnson started getting things going, making it appear Arizona was primed to pull away. The Wildcats bottled up Sun Devils point guard Jahii Carson who finished the half with just two points but perhaps as a precursor it was Jermaine Marshall who lifted the Sun Devils keeping them within striking distance at the break.
The second half was more of the same for the Wildcats who struggled with turnovers, especially the usually reliable T.J. McConnell, who finished the night with six. The Sun Devils ran their largest lead of the night to six but McConnell responded with a three to cut the deficit in half and the teams went down the stretch missing opportunity after opportunity to grab control of the game. Carson finally got things going late in the second half and looked like he might get the Sun Devils a huge win a lot earlier than it required.
A big three point play from Aaron Gordon got Arizona back within two at 51-49 then following a Sun Devils turnover Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hit McConnell for a breakaway layup to tie the game with 49 seconds to play. After the Wildcats got a stop, Sean Miller used a timeout to set up the final play but things appeared to break down and Arizona was forced to go to Aaron Gordon who airballed a turnaround push shot from the left block. Nick Johnson's floater at the buzzer was long and the two teams were off to overtime.
The first overtime saw another low scoring affair and an ugly turnover by McConnell with a little under a minute to go gave Arizona State a shot at the win. Carson couldn't finish over Gordon who played tremendous defense on the play and Johnson had a shot for the win but was long on his jumper sending the teams to the deciding overtime.
Arizona appeared to be ready to take the game after back to back big baskets by Gordon, but Jermaine Marshall responded with two big threes to tie it. After Gordon split a pair of free throws, Marshall was able to beat Johnson off the dribble and score to put the Sun Devils up one and set up the final sequence with Bachynski. After Carson's dunk, the Sun Devils did their best Cal impression storming the floor as Sun Devils bench players and fans celebrated an upset prematurely. No techs were accessed for hanging on the rim or storming the floor and Arizona was forced to need a running off balance three from Johnson as the horn sounded that nearly sent it to triple OT hitting the front rim.
The bigger issue coming away from the loss for Arizona, which is still in good shape to win the Pac-12 regular season crown and still is in play for a one seed, is the complete lack of any weapon off the bench. The Wildcats at this point live and die with bench production from Gabe York, and York might as well have stayed on the bus bringing almost nothing to the game. What was once Rondae Hollis-Jefferson's role has been voided and Arizona has yet to find an answer to that question.
With Johnson's terrible shooting night, McConnell's turnovers and continued struggles from the free throw line as a whole, the whispers about Arizona's offensive struggles only grow louder for a team looking to adjust to life without Brandon Ashley. Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson's inability to present any threat outside of 10 feet is making life very difficult on the Wildcats and Sean Miller will need to find a solution to this problem if the Wildcats are to live up to its potential in March.
Still, there's time for the Wildcats to right their flaws as they come down the home stretch of the regular season looking to finish off a regular season Pac-12 title. Arizona travels to Colorado and Utah next weekend in what is one of the tougher Pac-12 road trips teams face. Time will tell if the Wildcats are primed for an off season of "what could've been" or can still be the title contender they've been considered all year thus far.