March 19, 2008

ASU builds big lead and coasts to win over Hornets

If there were any questions about how Arizona State would respond after getting passed over by the NCAA selection committee, the Sun Devils wasted no time coming up with an answer.

The top-seeded Sun Devils began Tuesday night's game fast, scoring 18 of the game's first 21 points, but were a little shaky in the second half of their 64-53 win over eighth-seeded Alabama State in the first round of the NIT.

"In the first half we came out with a chip on our shoulder," James Harden said. "Sunday we didn't get into the NCAA Tournament so we kind of had that chip on our shoulder to just come out and play well and win this NIT Championship."

The Hornets were trailing by a double-digit margin almost the whole way, but cut the lead to eight with three minutes remaining. But ASU only allowed two more points the rest of the way to secure the win and move on to the next round.

"We did what we had to win the game, mostly on the efforts that came in the first half," coach Herb Sendek said. "Then in the second half we had a difficult time scoring and just didn't play with the same level of sharpness."

Next, the Sun Devils will take on fourth seeded Southern Illinois Thursday night at Wells Fargo Arena at 9 p.m.

Several Sun Devils pitched in and did their part to lock up the win, but like it has been all season, Harden lead the way for the Sun Devils. The freshman sensation finished the game with 25 points, 13 rebounds and one monster block in the opening minutes that set the tone of the first half.

The long-range shooting of Ty Abbott also helped establish the tempo early. The freshman guard scored all 15 of his points in the first half on 5-of-7 shooting from beyond the arc.

"We obviously started the game playing well tonight," Sendek said. "Most certainly aided by the fact that we were making shots, especially Ty. He got us going on the offensive end."

After the Sun Devils' early run, which lasted more than 10 minutes, Alabama State began to slowly chip away at ASU's lead. They went on a 12-3 run of their own to bring the game within 12 with less than two minutes to go in the half, but ASU finished the period with six unanswered points capped by a thunderous dunk by Eric Boateng just before the buzzer.

For the third straight game Boateng really stepped up, and ASU needed his production Tuesday because Jeff Pendergraph was sidelined with foul trouble for much of the second half. Boateng finished with eight points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 18 minutes of play.

"I was really pleased with Eric's rebounding, it's something we've really been after him about," Sendek said. "Tonight, I thought he really went after the ball."

But ASU couldn't ride the momentum of Boateng's jam when they came out of the locker room.

Harden said the team got "too comfortable" with its big lead as the Sun Devils only shot 31.8 percent from the field including just 1-of-8 from downtown in the second half.

But, Harden said, the team hasn't lost the chip on its shoulder and having less than two full days off before the next game will be in ASU's favor.

"We've just got to turn it around and practice for Southern Illinois," he said. "We'll come in [Wednesday] and prepare. Go over their game plan, our game plan and just be ready to go Thursday night.

"It's a quick turnaround. It's like Pac-10 [play] Thursday then Saturday. We're kind of used to it so we just have to be prepared."

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