TEMPE - A motivated group of kids sought desperately to claim for their coach a marquee win over their listless in-state rivals. Once the University of Arizona realized it was in a game, though, it was over.
After sleep-walking through the first 24 minutes of their game against Arizona State, the Wildcats woke up to coast to their ninth straight win over the Sun Devils 80-70 before 12,872 fans Wednesday night at Wells Fargo Arena.
Arizona now shares the longest active winning streak by one Pac-10 school over another with Oregon, which owns a nine-game streak over Washington State.
Arizona (13-6 overall, 6-3 Pac-10) heads into the midway point of the season in third place, one game in the loss column behind first-place Washington and UCLA. ASU (7-11 overall, 1-8 Pac-10) is alone in last place with an eight-day break that can only help a young unit drained by close losses and the uncertain future of coach Rob Evans. "It comes at a good time," Evans said. "We need to refocus. We need to get a chance to do some mental work."
If an awareness of ASU's place in the Pac-10 pecking order and an impending cross-country flight for a nationally televised game at North Carolina dimmed the interest level of the Wildcats, then a flurry of technical fouls and some bravado from Kevin Kruger seemed to rekindle it.
Technical fouls on Mustafa Shakur and coach Lute Olson gave Kruger four free throws and ASU the ball trailing by 13 early in the second half. Kruger converted three of the freebies then expressed his excitement over a 3-pointer that cut the lead to 41-34.
Within moments, the Arizona offense was rolling and Hassan Adams' tongue was wagging after every big shot. Adams scored 11 points on five shots in the second half after jacking up 14 shots and coming away with just 10 points before halftime. His touch was contagious as the Wildcats converted 15 of 24 attempts (62.5 percent) in the second half after hitting 13 of 34 shots (38.2 percent) in the first.
"Hassan played great. He's a great player and that's what he's supposed to do," said Kruger, who scored a game-high 23. "When we cut it to seven, he put it back to 10 and that's the sign of a good player."
ASU rushed out to an early nine-point lead as Jeff Pendergraph, who recorded his first career double-double, scored seven of the Sun Devils' first 13 points. Within five minutes Adams had tied the score at 17 on a two-handed dunk after rebounding Isaiah Fox's missed free throw.
Neither team forged a sizeable advantage until Arizona closed out the first half on a 12-4 run to head into the locker room with a 35-28 lead. The run continued into the second half until Arizona led 41-28. ASU failed to respond. After Kruger hit a 3-pointer to give ASU a 24-23 lead with 6:45 to play in the first half, 10 minutes and 45 seconds elapsed before ASU scored another field goal — Kruger's 3-pointer that cut Arizona's lead to seven and awoke Adams and the Wildcats.
"We came out and gave them every thing we could," Kruger said. "We just didn't do a good job of answering their run."