Down its best interior defender before tipoff, UCLA had to wonder how it would stop anybody in the post.
A far greater worry would quickly emerge.
Arizona State, the worst team in the Pac-12 Conference at making three-pointers, couldn’t miss for long stretches Thursday night at Desert Financial Arena. The Sun Devils hoisted three-pointers on drive-and-kick plays, in transition and on step-back moves. The result was almost always the same.
Arizona State made eight of 10 three-pointers in the first half on the way to an 84-66 victory over the Bruins that was a throwback to some of their defensive struggles from earlier this season.
The Sun Devils finished the game making 14 of 24 three-pointers (58.3%), an impressive showing for a team that entered the game making only 30.5% from long range. Alonzo Verge Jr., Kimani Lawrence and Khalid Thomas each made all three of their attempts from beyond the arc for Arizona State, which logged its season high for three-pointers and nearly matched its total of two-pointers (15) against the Bruins.
“A team shoots the ball like that,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, “the only chance we would have had was to shoot it right back at them.”
The Bruins couldn’t, making only seven of 25 three-pointers (28%) and enduring long scoring droughts. They failed to provide much entertainment for Torey Lovullo, the Arizona Diamondbacks manager who played baseball at UCLA and sat behind the Bruins’ bench.
The Bruins (12-11 overall, 5-5 Pac-12) were short-handed after redshirt sophomore forward Jalen Hill sprained his right knee in practice Wednesday and was held out of the game while being listed as day to day. That deprived UCLA of its best post player and top defender, Hill’s averages of 9.9 points and 7.1 rebounds being taken off the board.
Fellow sophomore forward Cody Riley replaced Hill in the starting lineup and swished a jumper for the game’s first points but committed an early charging foul and was replaced by Alex Olesinski.
Arizona State forward Romello White showed the Bruins how much they missed Hill defensively when he spun around Olesinski for a layup and sprinted unimpeded through the lane for a put-back dunk.
The Bruins also had other issues defensively.
“A lot of it was our transition defense,” UCLA freshman point guard Tyger Campbell said, noting the Sun Devils scored 27 fastbreak points. “We didn’t get back. That was a big thing for us; we were trying to build a wall all week and work on it, but we didn’t execute in the game.”
Verge scored 26 points for the Sun Devils (14-8, 5-4), who posted their fourth win in their last five games while trying to remain in NCAA tournament contention.
UCLA arrived here having won four of its previous five games by committing to defense, largely avoiding turnovers and pinpointing mismatches on offense. Junior guard Chris Smith had been the go-to guy whenever his athleticism presented an advantage against slower power forwards. Campbell was unleashed in the pick-and-roll game against Utah and responded with a career high in points.
Against Arizona State, Campbell was assertive once more with a variety of floaters and aggressive drives. He finished with 13 points but didn’t get nearly enough support outside of Riley’s 16 points. Smith scored nine points, making only two of seven shots.
Cronin acknowledged that the Bruins’ morale crumbled amid the Sun Devils’ unprecedented display of shot-making.
“The mark of a young team is that you don’t handle adversity quite the way you need to and I thought when they hit some tough shots, we let it bother us too much,” Cronin said. “We’re on defense feeling sorry for ourselves a little bit because Kimani Lawrence is six for 38 on the year from three and he opens up the first half and goes three for three. [Thomas] comes in and he’s two for two.
“But you’ve got to get over that. When a team’s doing that, you’ve got to keep your mind on the game plan and the scouting report.”