March 21, 2008

Second half tells story in big Sun Devil win

Just like Tuesday night's game, Thursday night's too was a tale of two halves for the ASU basketball team.

But against Southern Illinois, the Sun Devils saved their best for last in the second round of the NIT.

"[It was] a great team win over a program that knows how to win this time of year," coach Herb Sendek said.

Almost everything was different in the second half for the Sun Devils. They were making their 3-point attempts, getting fast-break buckets, getting to the free-throw line, owning the glass and most notably they outscored the Salukis by nine in the final 20 minutes to win by a final score of 65-51.

The Sun Devils are still driven by the fact that they were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, and said they plan on using that to fuel a deep run in the NIT.

"It keeps us going every day," Jeff Pendergraph said. "The [NCAA] Tournament is going on right now and we see teams in there and we feel like we could have had a chance to be in there. But instead of just whining about it… we have a mission. Our mission is not to play two games in the post-season and be like, 'Man, it was a hell of a year.' We want to go to Madison Square Garden and cut down nets."

Another thing fueling the Sun Devils' fire Thursday night was the crowd.

After the game the starters walked around the court high-fiving the fans, thanking them for the continued support.

"They love us," Pendergraph said. "They're just faithful and that's why we went over there and thanked them because they've been here the whole time."

Sendek was just happy that anyone came out to watch such a late (9:00 p.m. tip-off) game.

"I'm surprised to see some of you still awake," he joked afterwards.

ASU's strong suit all night was its defense, and Pendergraph was the spark. He recorded eight of the team's 11 blocks, tying a school record.

"The blocks were more of a function of them getting so many offensive rebounds," Pendergraph said. "I couldn't get any defensive rebounds so if they're just going to put the ball right there I'm just going to hit it."

But despite what he said, Pendergraph still had a great night on the glass. He hauled in 10 rebounds, eight on the defensive end.

And offensively, James Harden was the catalyst. Harden played very unselfish basketball and finished the game with seven assists to go along with his team-high 16 points.

"He rarely forces anything and he makes guys better," Sendek said of Harden. "He easily could have had double-digit assists tonight. He did his part… and we easily could have made three more of his passes."

And although the team was very pleased with the outcome, the game did not start well for ASU.

The Salukis put up the game's first seven points and ASU only had one field goal in the first seven minutes.

The Sun Devils spent a lot of time shooting from beyond the arc in the first half. They hoisted 17 threes and connected on six of them.

Ty Abbott was responsible for seven of those attempts, but he had a rough night from 3-point range and only made one.

In the first half ASU only had five shot attempts in the paint and made them all.

But despite the lack of interior play, which is usually necessary to win in the post-season, ASU still took a 28-23 lead heading into the break.

And after the intermission, ASU came hot beginning the second half on an 11-2 run spanning more than five minutes which was highlighted by a rare 4-point play from Abbott.

During that stretch, both Pendergraph and Eric Boateng committed their third fouls, but that didn't hamper the big men. Pendergraph had eight of his 12 points in the second half and Boateng was still very effective down low.

But perhaps the biggest spark in the second half was Jamelle McMillan. The freshman point guard had all nine of his points after halftime including two 3-pointers with defenders right in his face.

And McMillan wasn't the only point guard with a big night. While sophomore Derek Glasser only finished with five points and three assists, he did a great job of managing the game during the 23 minutes he played.

"I thought our point guard play tonight was excellent," Sendek said. "Both Derek and Jamelle played outstanding basketball."

Up next for ASU will be another contest at Wells Fargo Arena when they will take on the winner of Friday's Florida-Creighton.

That game will take place Tuesday night.

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