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March 17, 2010

Sun Devils collapse in NIT opener

Ben Smith didn't intend for his 24-foot 3-pointer to kiss off the backboard before falling through the basket with 1.9 seconds left in regulation, but Arizona State can kiss its season goodbye all the same.

Jacksonville's diminutive star senior guard gave the No. 8 seed a staggering 67-66 win over the top-seeded Sun Devils Tuesday at Wells Fargo Arena in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament with his heroic contested 3-pointer, which put a final exclamation mark on an 11-point comeback in the game's final 3:59.

Smith, who had a game-high 26 points including 23 in the second half, hit four 3-pointers following intermission and carried the Dolphins (20-12) to their first postseason win since 1974.

"I didn't call 'glass,' but as it was in the air, you could see it had a chance," Smith said.

It was a chance that never would have been possible had the Sun Devils not faltered down the stretch.

Derek Glasser and Jamelle McMillan each missed a free throw in the game's final twenty seconds, and the Dolphins generated two late turnovers on baseline out of bounds plays with full court pressure to set the stage for Smith's dramatic game winner.

The loss for ASU (22-11) follows on the heels of its shocking dismissal in the opening round of the Pac-10 Tournament in Los Angeles last Thursday, a result that cost the team any chance at an NCAA appearance.

"The last two games have probably been two of the toughest of my career here," ASU guard Jamelle McMillan said. "We didn't take care of business, and as a consequence we have to deal with this."

After an impressive regular season that included a second place finish in the Pac-10 for the first time since 1981, ASU is left reeling from near incomprehensible back-to-back losses that were each arguably worse than any others on the season. Collectively, it was an unmitigated two-game disaster.

"It was a difficult way to lose at the end (of the game) and end the season," ASU coach Herb Sendek said.

"We didn't play our best again, but give Jacksonville credit. They had a lot to do with it."

Sendek said his team prepared well for the Dolphins and had a good shootaround before the game. Though they had 19 turnovers and were outrebounded 35-30, they were well in position to win the game, and perhaps even do so handily before the final four minutes.

"I just don't think we made some good decisions," Sendek said, when asked about that span. "We really rushed on that last one. It happened in a blur. We just didn't take care of the ball. We made very hasty decisions."

Rihards Kuksiks led the Sun Devils with 21 points and made 4-of-6 3-pointers in the second half.

ASU held a 60-49 advantage with 3:49 left but was outscored 18-6 the rest of the way including 7-1 in the game's final 20 seconds.

Ty Abbott had 15 points for ASU, but 13 came in the first half and he had six turnovers. Eric Boateng had 11 points and six rebounds after playing just six minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. Jamelle McMillan had 10 points, six rebounds and four assists.

ASU held a 28-24 advantage at halftime with Jacksonville leading just once in the period, at 20-19 at the 7:48 mark.

With a strong second half start, the Sun Devils stretched their lead to 11 points on four separate occassions during the period, but couldn't completely pull away and the Dolphins were able to make them pay.


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