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The Streak is Over?

Sun Devils Pop NCAA Balloon

By Lance Epstein

TUCSON, Ariz.—How could a season that appeared so promising just a short three weeks ago go bad? Inconsistency, turnovers and defensive intensity are just a few of the elements that have led to the collapse.

At the end beginning of February, the Arizona Wildcats controlled their own destiny, looked poised and had a particularly strong case for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. After Arizona State’s 73-69 win in the McKale Center Sunday, the air out of the proverbial balloon had all but been let out. Now, the Wildcats sit at 13-13 and just 7-7 in the conference.

"Everybody was real quiet," freshmen forward Derrick Williams said. "You don't want to lose to a rival school. Nobody really said anything."

Sun Devils’ guard Ty Abbott continued his recent tear by scoring 28 points on 11-of-17 shooting (hit eight consecutive shots at one point). By the end of the afternoon, the Wildcats already thin aspirations of extending the NCAA Tournament streak to 26 had become daunting and unrealistic.

"Abbott had a great game,” Freshman forward Derrick Williams said “We had a hand in his face, but he just kept knocking shots down. He just started out really hot and that carried through the game."

Abbott did not score a single point in the last 11 minutes of the game but he was indeed the man among boys yesterday afternoon. His play remind Arizona enthusiasts of former Sun Devil and Arizona killer James Harden, who scored and slashed at will against the Swiss cheese Arizona defense.

“I've got to say, that their greatest performer tonight was Ty Abbott,” UA Head Coach Sean Miller said. “He made a lot of great shots, and he was set up for some really great plays. He is definitely responsible for their win tonight. ASU was very smart to put him in the position to make those shots. We really had no answer for him.”

Of course, with all the negativity surrounding the Wildcats and the pressure by the fans to get their 26 straight NCAA tournament berth, the Wildcats had their chances to win the game.

Down 69-60 with 2:06 left in the game, Lamont Momo Jones made two free throws. After Parrom pulled down monster rebound, the crowd erupted as he three defenders collapsed on him and he dished to a wide-open Williams for the dunk.

Momentum was in Arizona’s favor and with chance to pull to within three points as soon as Momo Jones stepped in front of an Abbott pass. On the breakaway however, Jones lost control of the ball and once he finally regained control, his foot accidentally stepped on the baseline.

Even with the costly turnover, Arizona force ASU’s Glasser into an off balanced three. Parrom pulled down the board and then was fouled going up for a layup at the other end with 22 seconds left.

He hit both free throws and the Wildcats immediately fouled Glasser. Glasser drained both free throws extending the ASU lead to five at 71-66.

However, on the next Arizona possession, Fogg committed the cardinal sin of taking his eye off the ball. The ball bounced off his hands, dribbled onto the out of bounce line and ended any chance of a comeback. Rihards Kuksiks sunk two of his 17 points to ice the game.

In the first game at ASU, Kevin Parrom set the tone with his “no easy baskets” foul against Abbott and his aggressive in your face defense. His actions at the end of the game might have set the tone for the team and the rest of the season, as he forearm checked pesky Sun Devil senior Glasser.

"I love to see guys are disappointed with a loss, but we don't do anything other than that," Miller said. "I apologize to Arizona State. Kevin being a young person there's so many lessons young people learn leaving high school and coming to college, and I'm sure Kevin will learn from that. But I didn't feel good about that."

While Miller interprets it as the young Wildcats caring and frustration with the loss, there is more to it than just that. The Wildcats fragile psyche has been shattered, the passion to win at any cost dwindled, their irritated demeanor and their confidence non-existent.

Once praised for their team toughness and resiliency on the defensive end has vanished and become as soft. In the second half, the Sun Devils shot a collective 67 percent from the field and 52 percent overall.

More disturbing is the Wildcats turning the ball over at crucial times in the game, like Momo Jones stepping on the baseline or Kyle Fogg taking his eye off the ball with 30 seconds left in a five point game.

In this downward spiral, the Wildcats have consistently shot themselves in the foot. Nice Wise and Fogg coming into the ASU game combined to average eight turnovers a game in the past five games. Yesterday, the 12 turnovers by Arizona lead to 13 points and the two late critical turnovers were converted into four.

Furthermore, where is the consistency that allowed the Wildcats to climb up the standings and have a chance to win every night? Watching and observing the Cats over the last few weeks, there is more to it than lack of effort. It is called fatigue.

Arizona is a team that plays five freshman significant minutes. These players in their basketball careers have never played, practiced or participated in this type of atmosphere. While AAU basketball has them playing year round, college basketball is far more grueling.

The schedule consisting of waking up and practicing at 6 in the morning, flying and taking a bus to hidden Corvallis and Pullman and on top of it all, attending college level course. It would not be shocking if most of the freshmen did not even know their was a six o’clock in the morning until this season.

While the freshmen are exhausted so is senior guard Nic Wise. Before last night’s game, Wise averaged 8.8 points on 27 percent shooting over the last five games. Miller and the Wildcats will never publically admit to the excuse of fatigue, but the game tape does not lie and neither does their body language.

Tape reveals a player being a step behind to help out on defense, a lack of hustle to the offensive or defensive board and lazy passes.

The physical weariness is one thing, but the Wildcats also have been showing signs of mental exhaustion as well. Oregon State consistently ran the same backdoor cut and just as consistently, the players on the court made no adjustments. Another mental lapse that is noticeable is players jumping in the air not knowing what they are going to do with the ball.

Many fans are resolved to the facts these are the ups and downs of a young team, but Miller might have stated it best yesterday when saying Arizona State was just the better team.

"It's not about being young right now,” Miller said. “It's just that we lost to the better team. Arizona State should be proud of their team. They did a great job."

The frustration for Arizona and it’s fans is the fact ASU has beaten the Wildcats 5-of-the-last-6 times and are 3-1 in the last four in the McKale Center. A match-up that used to be dominated by the Wildcats is quickly seeing the pendulum swing back in the direction of the heated rival.

Adding more salt to the already wounded ego and consciousness of Arizona fans is ASU’s Abbott and Glasser proclaiming the victory as “the best win of the year” for ASU.

Right now, as of this moment, the Sun Devil program is just better than Arizona. Unlike last week’s performance versus Oregon State, Miller sees and understands where his program stands.

"Even though we lost, there is still a very big difference between postgame today and our last game,” Miller said. “We came out and tried to win it tonight, but really had no answers. We played hard and did what we needed to do. I have to give credit where credit is due.

“Our team has to get better; we're mediocre. I don't want it to be OK to lose."

All that being said, the Wildcats are only 2 1/2 games back of the leader California in the Pac-10 standings. However for a team that has lost 4-of-5, losing the next four games seems more likely than winning out. Especially California will have payback on their mind for the four-point loss in Tucson.

"We just gotta take it one game at a time,” Williams said. “Now we go up north to play Cal and Stanford. We just gotta take it to them like we did down here. We're playing pretty well on the road right now; we're just struggling at home a little bit."

Going on the road in the PAC-10 is never easy, so getting a split would be giant first step in the preparation for a PAC-10 tourney run.

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