DAYTON, Ohio – It was nearing midnight when Arizona State players exited the locker room. Senior guard Kodi Justice embraced his coach. Senior guard Shannon Evans had tears in his eyes. Sophomore forward Mickey Mitchell walked with a slight limp.

The end is always hard. And when it was over – Arizona State falling 60-56 to Syracuse in an NCAA Tournament First Four contest – the Sun Devils had trouble explaining how they had let it slip away. From every corner of the locker room Wednesday night, someone accepted responsibility.

“I missed some shots I should’ve made,” senior guard Tra Holder said.“I need to improve on my free throws, definitely,” redshirt-freshman Romello White said.

ASU looked to be in control. In front of a First Four-record crowd of 12,732 at Dayton Arena, Justice hit a 3-pointer with seven minutes left to give the Sun Devils the game’s largest lead, 49-42. At the time, Syracuse had looked awful offensively, incapable of putting together any type of run.

And yet, the game turned.

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Syracuse scored eight in a row to take a 50-49 lead. Justice (15 points) hit a 3 to put ASU back on top 52-50. The Orange answered with five in a row. The Sun Devils pulled within one, but Syracuse center Paschal Chukwu – who had missed his first three foul shots – made three in 39 seconds to push the Orange (21-13) into Friday’s first-round contest against sixth-seed TCU.

“It was a rock fight,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “And we just didn’t make enough shots.”

Over the final seven minutes, ASU went 3 of 10 from the field with two turnovers. Trailing 58-56 in the final seconds, Evans pump-faked a defender, stepped to the right and fired a 3. It was a good look, but it bounced off the rim.

“We were making plays,” Justice said. “We were making shots. And (in the end), a few shots didn’t go. That’s all it came down to.”


ASU guard Tra Holder reacts to Wednesday’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

Syracuse’s 2-3 zone was as advertised. Even though the Orange had just seven scholarship players, coach Jim Boeheim had the country’s tallest starting five, and that length gave ASU problems. Freshman guard Remy Martin sparked ASU in the first half with penetration, getting the Sun Devils easy looks.

But Martin played only seven second-half minutes, and the Sun Devils tried to pull away by shooting over the zone instead of trying to get inside. Thirty-two of ASU’s 52 field-goal attempts – 61.5 percent – were from long range. The Sun Devils made 11.

“Anytime you go two, three possessions without making shots, they get life,” associate head coach Rashon Burno said. “Down the stretch, we had some great looks. And even when you miss, sometimes you can get a second opportunity. They didn’t give us a second opportunity, so obviously, that puts a lot of pressure on making every shot.”

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Even worse: ASU’s performance at the foul line. A 73.8 percent free-throw shooting team, the Sun Devils made just 3 of 10. They were 0 of 3 in the second half. Against a tough defense, those points cannot be thrown away.

“It was across the board,” Hurley said. “It wasn’t one guy. In a game like this, a defensive-oriented game, I thought it could end up going in that direction based on our opponent and their style of play. You have to knock down your free throws and open 3s that you get. And there aren’t a lot of great looks out there to be had.”

Over the final seven minutes, Syracuse outscored ASU 18-7. For the second game in a row, a freshman outplayed the Sun Devils. In last week’s Pac-12 Tournament, it was Colorado point guard McKinley Wright. Against Syracuse, it was forward Oshae Brissett, who put up 23 points and 12 rebounds.

“We ran the same play four times in a row and scored all four times,” Boeheim said of the game’s defining stretch. “(We) just tried to open it up a little bit and either throw it to Oshae, give him a shot or get it to the other side.”


ASU’s Remy Martin reacts to Wednesday’s NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse.

This ASU season is hard to define. Based on preseason expectations, the Sun Devils (20-12) probably finished right where everyone expected. It’s just the route they took to get here that leaves such an empty feeling among its fans.

The perfect non-conference season altered expectations, launching Hurley’s program to another level. It happened so quickly, everyone – fans, media, players, coaches – might have forgot an important fact. Rarely does a program coming off two losing seasons storm into the Top 10 and stay there. It takes time to sustain such a level of play, and as this season unfolded, that harsh reality set in.

Hurley offered perspective.

“I don’t look at the season in any stretch of the mind as a disappointment,” he said. “These guys are warriors. They fought. They delivered some memories that I’ll always remember. They elevated Arizona State basketball, these seniors have. They’ll have a special place in my heart.”

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Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at