WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17, 2010
A Comeback for the Ages: How JU Rallied Past Arizona State
For the first 16 minutes of the second half, Arizona State was having its way on offense, building up an 11-point lead with 3:59 left in the game.

What happened over those final minutes was nothing short of magical for JU as the Dolphins closed the game on an 18-6 run to pull out a 67-66 win over the Sun Devils in the first round of the NIT.

After lapses throughout the second half that saw ASU at one point hitting 80 percent of its shots in the second half, the Dolphins defense turned up the pressure in the final minutes.

ASU had the ball 11 times during JU’s comeback, getting points on just four possessions, with three of them ending in turnovers that JU converted into points. The Sun Devils also struggled at the free throw line, hitting just 2-of-4 in the final 20 seconds.

The full court press gave the Sun Devils fits all night and was ultimately their undoing.

JU’s stifling pressure forced those three turnovers in the final minute, with ASU struggling to just get the ball inbounds. For most of the second half Arizona State had been able to attack the press and get some open looks, but not in that final minute.

The Sun Devils committed 19 turnovers in the game and JU cashed those in for 18 points – and none bigger than with 12 seconds left.

The most important play of the comeback came after Ayron Hardy’s layup. Leading by three, Jamelle McMillan was inbounding for ASU and Hardy’s lengthy frame got a deflection that went right to Chris Edwards, who attacked the basket and was fouled on a layup attempt.

After Edwards’ free throws cut the lead to one, JU got a huge break when Derek Glasser, ASU’s all-time leader in free throws, missed the second of two shots – setting up the game winning shot.

But, for any comeback to happen, a team has to take advantage of each and every possession on offense as well.

The Dolphins had the ball 11 times in the final four minutes, coming away with points on eight of those. Two of those scoring possessions came on second chance opportunities, most notable after Ayron Hardy missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 57 seconds remaining.

The offensive rebound on that miss was by Chris Edwards and Smith hit the hardest shot of all during the rally, a fadeaway 18-footer with a defender in his face.

And any great comeback isn’t complete without a leader. For JU, that was Ben Smith.

Smith, a senior who had been in so many of these close games before, knew he had to put the team on his shoulders and find a way to win. He had come close at Georgetown and at Georgia Tech last season as well at South Carolina earlier this year. The Dolphins were so close in each of those games that they could taste the victory.

So it was Smith who took control of the game – like big-time players do in clutch situations. He had led JU’s near-miss at South Carolina and seen Devan Downey’s scoring exhibition as he just willed his team past JU back in late November.

On this night, Smith did his own Downey impersonation. In the 18-6 run, Smith scored 12 of his game-high 26 points – including two 3-pointers.

Nothing early in the game led you to believe that Smith had any magical heroics left in his JU career. The first half saw him hit just 1-of-8 from the floor for only three points.

But JU’s second all-time leading scorer had other designs. He was 8-for-13 in the second half from the floor, going 3-for-6 from behind the arc. In playing all 40 minutes, Smith directed the JU offense with the confidence of a veteran point guard – committing just one turnover while dishing out five assists.

Yet Smith will be the first to tell you that it was a complete team effort.

In the second half, JU hit 15-of-25 from the floor (60.0 percent) and held the Sun Devils to just 11-of-21 shooting (ASU started the half hitting eight of its first 11 shots).

With the first postseason win for JU since 1974 in tow, the Dolphins loaded up on the charter plane back to Jacksonville with their eyes focused on the next game – at Texas Tech on Monday night.

SMITH’S GAME-WINNER

We would be remiss if we didn’t revisit Smith’s game-winning shot a little more as well.

When Glasser was standing at the free throw line with nine seconds left, JU head coach Cliff Warren was barking out instructions to his team on the floor, namely Smith on what to do. There was no option as to whether it was a make or a miss – it was one option – get a three.

After Glasser’s second free throw attempt rimmed out, the Dolphins were only playing for the win.

Smith quickly, yet methodically, weaved his way up the floor and got two great screen at the top of the key from Lehmon Colbert and Ayron Hardy that allowed him to get a good look. There was still a defender coming over to help, which forced him to arc his shot a little more – which in the end was the difference in the win and a loss.

“It felt good when it left my hand,” Smith said in the celebration afterwards. “I didn’t call bank, but I had to put a little more arc on it.”

There was still 1.6 seconds left on the clock and the Dolphins made sure there wasn’t a last second loss by getting another steal – sending the JU bench roaring onto the floor in celebration and quieting the raucous crowd at Wells Fargo Arena.