Hyped rivalry game ends with Arizona victorious and Arizona State validated

Arizona State guard Remy Martin, left, reaches to steal the ball from Arizona guard Rawle Alkins (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

The most anticipated basketball game in the history of the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry somehow ended with both teams having reason to feel good about themselves.

Seventeenth-ranked Arizona reasserted itself as the Pac-12 favorite with a tense, hard-fought 84-78 victory. Third-ranked Arizona State showed enough in a road defeat to suggest the Sun Devils will be a factor in the conference title picture all season long.

Twice in the final 12 minutes of Saturday night’s game Arizona built seemingly comfortable 12-point leads thanks to Allonzo Trier’s ability to consistently attack the basket off the dribble and DeAndre Ayton’s knack for dominating in the paint. Each time smaller yet quicker Arizona State refused to fold, battling back behind the creativity and shot-making of senior point guard Tra Holder.

Ayton’s tip-in of a missed runner by Trier gave Arizona a four-point cushion with less than 30 seconds to play, yet Holder came right back, drew a foul and sank two free throws for his game-high 30th and 31st points of the night. Not until Trier hit two foul shots on the next possession and Arizona State’s Shannon Evans missed a last-gasp 3-pointer could the Wildcats at last feel safe.

Arizona’s victory is another sign of how much the Wildcats (11-3, 1-0) have improved since their lost weekend in the Bahamas last month when they dropped back-to-back-to-back games against NC State, Western Kentucky and Purdue. While Arizona still isn’t performing like the preseason No. 2 team in the nation, the Wildcats have progressed enough to notch victories over Texas A&M, Alabama, UNLV and UConn before handing Arizona State its first loss of the season Saturday night.

The return of versatile wing Rawle Alkins is one big reason Arizona is blossoming. The development of the other members of their freshman class besides Ayton has also helped. But the biggest difference is a renewed commitment on defense, the area where the Wildcats were exposed most frequently in the Bahamas.

What Arizona did well Saturday against Arizona State was get back in transition, wall off the paint and force the Sun Devils to contested runners or jump shots. Holder still got his, but the Wildcats limited Evans to 3-for-14 shooting, consistently chased Kodi Justice off the 3-point arc and kept Remy Martin quiet in the second half.

Arizona State held Ayton in check for awhile with a series of effective double teams, but he eventually used his size and strength to assert himself inside and finish with 23 points and 19 rebounds. Trier also shook off a slow start and repeatedly attacked off the bounce, scoring nearly half his 23 points at the foul line.

It’s a testament to the job Bobby Hurley has done at Arizona State that the Sun Devils could provide a real test for Arizona in Tucson. This was an Arizona State program that went 15-18 last season and was projected to finish sixth in the Pac-12 before the season.

The freedom that Hurley gives his guards has really paid off this season as Holder and Evans have emerged as elite lead guards, Justice has become a consistent knock-down shooter and Martin has shown a knack for scoring and generating extra possessions with his hustle. Arizona State is also more effective protecting the rim, trapping opposing big men andf pressuring the ball in the backcourt this season.

While Arizona State (12-1, 0-1) can feel good about its series of late surges that pushed Arizona to the wire, the Sun Devils will also lament a missed opportunity to assert superiority in a rivalry where they have often been the little brother. Arizona State would have remained the nation’s last unbeaten team with a win and would have made a strong case to ascend to No. 1 in the polls Monday morning.

Even with the setback, Arizona State has the resume of a top-five team. The Sun Devils have upset Kansas in Lawrence, thumped Xavier on a neutral floor and defeated Kansas State, San Diego State and Vanderbilt. So few teams have beaten Arizona at the McKale Center under Sean Miller that even coming so close qualifies as an accomplishment.

There can be no debating that Arizona State is a tough, talented, relentless team, not after the scare the Sun Devils put into their rivals.

In the end Arizona got the win it needed at home to remain the Pac-12 favorite, while Arizona State secured validation that it too is a legitimate conference contender.

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!