PHOENIX — Some games come down to a matter of inches. Others end up being decided by a matter of seconds.
In BYU's heart-breaking 76-75 loss Saturday to No. 17 Arizona State at the Stadium Shootout, it was a matter of much less than that — more like less than a tenth-of-a-second to be exact.
The Cougars thought they had escaped the spacious University of Phoenix Stadium with an upset victory when Charles Abouo's off-balance, left-handed, over-the-head flip tip swished through at the buzzer — which would have given the Cougars a thrilling one-point victory. But the three officials, after several minutes of huddling around a replay monitor, eventually ruled Abouo's tip left his hand after time had expired, spoiling all of the leaps of joy expressed minutes earlier by Abouo and the Cougar bench and handing BYU its first loss of the season.
"It's tough to swallow, but there's not a lot you can do," an obviously frustrated Jonathan Tavernari said.
Despite the hard-to-swallow loss, the Cougars had no reason to believe the officials got it wrong. However, it was about as close of a call as a close-call can get. Still photographs showed the ball in Abouo's hand and the backboard light off, one frame later (less than one-tenth of a second) the ball was about a foot out of Abouo's hand and the time-expired light was on.
"I heard the horn while the ball was in the air and that's why I initially thought it was good," Abouo said.
Also, the Cougars said the game never should have come down to that final play in the first place — considering they squandered a 10-point lead over the final nine minutes and led by five with just over three minutes remaining. In fact, when ASU took that 76-75 lead on a free throw by Sun Devil star James Harden with 9.4 seconds left, it was the Sun Devils' only lead of the second half.
"It was a hard-fought game and obviously a game that could have gone either way," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "Fortunately for us, (Abouo's tip) came after the buzzer."
A few sloppy possessions down the stretch, a few costly late turnovers and some crucial missed free throws late also played heavily into why the Sun Devils were able to catch the Cougars.
"We had plenty of opportunities, we just didn't capitalize on them," BYU coach Dave Rose said.
What really happened to BYU was Harden, a national player-of-the-year candidate who killed the Cougars in more ways than one. Not only did the sophomore guard score a game-high 29 points, dish out six assists and grab five steals and six rebounds, he repeatedly broke down BYU's defense off the dribble and got into the paint time and time again.
"It's hard to get a rhythm defensively in guarding him and he's very unselfish, so if you make a mistake he'll make you pay or he'll find the open guy," Rose said.
The future NBA player also received a little college superstar treatment, going to the foul line 21 times — which was three more free throws than BYU's entire team shot. Jackson Emery, who had the main assignment to guard Harden, fouled out. Lee Cummard, centers Chris Miles and Gavin MacGregor, and Abouo also battled foul trouble because of Harden's penetration.
"We put him at the free-throw line way too many times and he capitalized on that," Rose said.
But BYU was able to stay in front for a good share of the game the old-fashioned way — by making more baskets than the Sun Devils. The Cougars finished with one more field goal than ASU and made five more 3-point shots. The hot shooting of Tavernari, who scored 24 points on 10-of-19 shooting, led an 8-0 run by BYU to finish the first half and allowed the Cougars to take 41-36 lead into the locker room. When Lee Cummard (13 points) finished up a four-point play, Jimmer Fredette (16 points) hit a trey and Tavernari popped in a couple more jumpers, the Cougars found themselves leading 66-56 with 9:30 remaining.
From that point on, however, the Cougar possessions slowly deteriorated. When Harden fed Ty Abbott for a 3-pointer from the left corner with two minutes remaining, the Sun Devils caught the Cougars at 73-73. A running up-and-under bank shot by Fredette on BYU's next possession gave the Cougars a two-point lead, only to see it quickly disappear when ASU's Rihard Kuksiks rattled in a tough inside jumper.
Tavernari missed a tough baseline leaner on BYU's next possession, and ASU gathered in the high-bouncing loose ball. Harden dribbled several seconds off the clock near midcourt before Abouo was whistled for a foul on a steal attempt.
With 9.4 on the clock, Harden missed the first foul shot but made the second. Rose wanted a timeout, but Fredette rushed downcourt and forced up a tough leaner that was blocked out of bounds. The Cougars wanted to run a double-cutter on the inbounds play, which would have given Cummard the final shot. But the ball was inbounded to Tavernari, who hurried up a shot and then a tip, before Abouo grabbed the garbage and quickly flipped it up and in, but evidently not quite soon enough.
"I think there's a lot of shoulda-coulda-woulda scenarios in this game, but they just made the plays and knocked down the shots, and we didn't," Cummard said.