If the latest hoops version of the “Duel in the Desert” had been a one-on-one point guard duel between Mark Lyons and Jahii Carson, the guy hailing from New York City might have won in a close bout.
But with both Arizona and Arizona State’s entire rosters thrown in, the final result was a decisive 71-54 knockout in favor of the boys from Tucson. As spectacular as the Sun Devils’ home-grown star played on Saturday, he and his teammates were no match to the overwhelming defense and depth displayed by the “road” team.
Through the opening 30 minutes, it looked like the two interstate programs were participating in what was going to be a classic. Points were hard to come by as Arizona’s freshmen bigs continued to struggle down low while the defense Sean Miller has thoroughly implemented forced the Sun Devils into numerous turnovers and contested shots.
Arizona’s trio of seniors made up for 60% of the offensive output by game’s end; Lyons led the way with 24 points and had a field day attacking the rim.
Meanwhile, the longtime friends and rivals – Nick Johnson and Carson – oohed and ahhed the Wells Fargo Arena crowd. Johnson nicely broke out of his slump with a 19 point performance as Carson single-handedly carried his team’s offensive production.
The two also engaged in foul trouble, with Carson picking up his third on a charge in the final seconds of the first half.
Following intermission, both teams continued to trade buckets and runs until ASU had cut a once nine point deficit down to two.
With the ball and needing a score to change the momentum, Lyons did what he has done all season: come up with the game altering play.
This time, he forced Carson to bite on a drive to the hoop and ASU’s freshman point guard picked up a critical fourth foul. A cloud of silence would have fallen over the crowd if not for the large contingency of Arizona fans.
After Carson was placed on the bench, Arizona’s defensive masterpiece continued while ASU’s entire offensive hopes were simultaneously lying on the shoulders of someone who was too vulnerable to be put in the game.
Nonetheless a few minutes later, Herb Sendek subbed Carson in but it was too late. Lyons mechanically made his pair of free throws to start a 9-0 Arizona run that gave the Cats a double digit lead.
As time ran off the clock and the Sun Devils helplessly tried to get back in the game, chants of “This is our house” from Cats fans rang out through the arena. Indeed, it felt like Tempe belonged to Arizona on a day when the truth of the rivalry’s status was never more transparent.
Even with one of the most talented freshmen in the program’s history, the Sun Devils didn’t have nearly enough weapons to fend off a top 10 ranked Arizona club poised to earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
So is the definition of basketball normalcy in the Grand Canyon state.