TEMPE — As Arizona State celebrated in its locker room, the Sun Devils’ vice president of athletics, Lisa Love, met in the hallway with a small group of people.
“Was that fun or what?” she said with a grin.
That’s the way it is in sports.
One rival’s fun is another’s agony (see, Arizona-ASU football, 2011).
On this Sunday in Wells Fargo Arena, Arizona State’s most fun day of the basketball season — by far — was the one the Arizona Wildcats likely will regret the most.
“It’s a dagger,” said UA forward Solomon Hill.
A team on the NCAA Tournament bubble does not lose its regular-season finale to a team that was 9-20, was ranked 250th in the RPI and lost at home in mid-December to NAU, a team that had dismissed its coach amid scandal.
And while it’s hard to get your head around the final score — 87-80 Arizona State — there was little argument that the Devils were, in fact, the better team for 40 minutes.
“Yeah, it’s the toughest one of the year,” Hill said of the loss. “We just popped the bubble.”
There is little argument about that, either.
The Wildcats — who were barely in some NCAA Tournament projections last week and barely out in some others — are now o-u-t. Out. Unless they win the Pac-12 tournament next week, of course. (Well, maybe two wins will be good enough, but don’t count on it.)
Arizona, the fourth seed, is likely headed to a quarterfinal matchup against UCLA on Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Bruins open vs. 12th-seeded USC on Wednesday.
“We’re not good enough to be an NCAA Tournament team right now,” coach Sean Miller conceded.
“That’s not to say we’ve waved the white flag or that we’re not going to go to LA and try to win the tournament. … There are a lot of teams fighting for the same thing as us, and what they do is go on the road in a game like today and leave with a win.
“You have to earn your way into the tournament. There are no politics.”
So, what the heck happened?
Start with ASU. That’s what Miller did. He has ripped his team after a couple of its losses this season, but not Sunday afternoon. He stepped into the media throng and immediately praised the Devils.
“I thought they played an excellent game,” Miller said.
“We had a really hard time guarding them individually, and in the second half guarding the post. When they needed big shots, I really believe they made every one of them. In a game like today, individual players and teams playing at a high level is what March is all about.
“They were prepared, hungry, together and they earned their victory today.”
How does ASU score its highest point total of the year against a team that was leading the league in field-goal percentage defense (40.3 percent)?
How did ASU shoot 55.8 percent?
Just one of those days?
Arizona State normally shoots 66.9 percent from the free throw line. It was 22 of 24 vs. Arizona, making 15 in a row to the end the game. Arizona State, which was last in the Pac-12 in turnovers with 16.6 per game, committed just 10.
The Devils had a season-high 13 steals.
ASU scored 49 points in the second half — more than its total in five games this season.
Carrick Felix had 23 points. Jonathan Gilling and Trent Lockett each scored 21 points.
“ASU played great,” said UA guard Brendon Lavender.
“We didn’t really have an answer. That sucks. Defensively, we couldn’t answer the bell. Gilling shot lights out. We couldn’t stop Lockett. We couldn’t stop Felix. When those guys are like that, it’s going to be tough to win.”
Most importantly, ASU was healthy. Felix returned after missing two games with an illness. Lockett was at his best after earlier missing six games because of an ankle injury. Jordan Bachynski, a 7-2 center, is a waaaay better player now than he was when the teams met in McKale Center on Dec. 31.
Bachynski scored only two points in the first half, but he had nine after the break and caused all kinds of problems as 6-7 Jesse Perry tried to front him with help from other UA defenders.
“Their big man really affected us,” Hill said. “When we started caring about their big man, it opened up drives and situations for other people. Gilling came out and played an excellent game.”
Arizona tried several players on the 6-7 Gilling, who was too tall for UA’s perimeter defenders and as quick as a guy with more size, like Hill. Gilling, a freshman from Denmark, made the key shot — a 3-pointer with 57 seconds left for an 81-77 lead.
He took the shot after ASU called a timeout with 12 seconds left on the shot clock. The ball came out top to Gilling, who shot over 6-3 Kyle Fogg.
“I was almost wide open and just shot it,” said Gilling, who was 5 of 6 from behind the arc.
Arizona (21-10 overall, 12-6 Pac-12) has relied on defense but brought none of it to Tempe. ASU scored on its final nine possessions, including Lockett’s tip-in of his own miss.
And now the Cats are pretty much out of options: Win the Pac-12 tournament … or else get ready to host a home NIT game (and, yes, the university is prepared to do just that).
“We’ll be good,” Lavender said of the team’s mentality. “This is where everyone comes together.”
But the damage had already been done in Tempe.