It was looking bleak for Arizona as they trailed by six points with 3:36 remaining in the game with ASU having all the momentum, but the Wildcats battled back through the adversity to defeat the Sun Devils 84-82 on a game-winning put-back layup from freshman Azuolas Tubelis as the buzzer sounded.
“I feel amazing because it's my first game-winner I think," Tubelis said. "I feel amazing, but yeah, I saw that the ball was going short so I just caught it and finished."
It was a very rough start to the game for Tubelis, as he was scoreless with four turnovers and quite simply didn’t seem himself, but the freshman out of Lithuania lived out the saying "it’s not how you start, but how you finish” to the fullest degree, as he scored eight huge points in the last 12-plus minutes of the game, to go along with a huge controversial block on the possession before his game-winner.
"It's a big credit to my teammates," Tubelis said. "They saw me and I finished it. Coach said you need to catch the ball every time, so we did pretty well in the second half. That's why we won the game."
James Akinjo was the overall star of the night for Arizona, dropping 24 huge points and tying a season-high with five shots made from the outside. After 14 points in the first half, Akinjo went a cold in the second half but nailed a huge three with just under two minutes left in the game to bring the Wildcats to within two points.
“I know when I play the best guards, I feel like I'm one of the best guards in the conference also," Akinjo said. "I know when I play one of the best guards in the conference, I got to step it up, take it to another level and I got to go out there and I got to show and prove every time so give credits to my teammates though. They always give me the confidence to take on these matchups, coaches pushing me every day in practice, so I feel like I have to step up my level of play against these guards.”
The fouling continued to be an issue for Arizona as they recorded seven more fouls than Arizona State as the Sun Devils shot 12 more free throw attempts. Christian Koloko, who was the only Wildcat to foul out, played in limited minutes due to being in foul trouble but brought a huge spark to the game early in the second half with two huge blocks and two dunks just two minutes into the second half.
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There is no denying his immense upside and potential standing in at 7-foot-1, but this is his third game of the season fouling out, so head coach Sean Miller noted that he’ll have to keep an eye on Koloko committing unnecessary fouls.
“[Koloko] is a very important player for us," Miller said. "I mean he's our best interior defender, like you mentioned he has the ability to block shots, change the game around the rim. He takes his defense very seriously. We'll have to take a look at his fouls. We don't always want him in foul trouble, and there's probably a couple of plays where he just has to continue to grow, be smarter on the court because he's such a young player that game experience is very important for his development, but you're right he made a couple of key plays, a couple of spurts where our team played well. I thought he was right at the forefront of those plays."
One of the biggest contributors to this win for the Wildcats was freshman Dalen Terry, who shot 3-3 from behind the arc and dropped 13 huge points off the bench. The expectations were high for Terry coming into the year as a four-star recruit out of Tempe, Arizona and the No. 63 player in the 2020 recruiting class according to ESPN, but he had struggled to find any consistency prior to tonight scoring 10+ points in just one game prior.
Terry was contributing in other areas, but expectations were higher for him as a scorer entering this season and he showed what he is truly capable of with this huge performance off the bench for the Wildcats and will look to carry that momentum moving forward the rest of the season.
“[Terry] was the unsung hero of tonight's game," Miller said. "Three-for-three from the three-point line, [Terry] really works at it. I mean he gives as much effort working on his game as any player, especially freshman, that we've had. He is up early, in the gym early and practices hard every day. A big part of his work ethic is to improve his shooting and, as you can see, I thought he shot good threes and when he shot the ball, it was the shot we wanted him to take. One of the big reasons why we won the game is his overall play, but the fact that he was able to become a double-figure scorer in tonight's game.”
ASU’s Remy Martin and Josh Christopher led the way for the Sun Devils, dropping 18 points apiece. Christopher, a 24% three-point shooter entering this game, went 3-4 from deep including 16 points in the second half, leading a couple of spurts where it almost looked like Arizona State was going to run away with this game.
It was a slow start for Martin, but he scored 13 points in the final ten minutes of the game including some huge threes. Despite the Sun Devils getting to the line 12 more times, they struggled at times to convert those free throws going 21-29 from the line including a 1-5 start. The Wildcats were far more efficient at the line, shooting 15-17.
These two teams will be going at it again on Monday, Jan. 25, this time in Tucson, Arizona, with tip-off scheduled for 9 p.m. MST on ESPN 2. The Wildcats will be looking to sweep the Sun Devils for the first time since the 2017-18 season.
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