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February 15, 2008

No love in Tempe for No. 7 Cardinal

On Valentine's Day, the ASU basketball team broke the hearts of the No. 7 ranked Stanford Cardinal with a 72-68 overtime upset win at Wells Fargo Arena. ASU freshman swingman James Harden did most of the damage, scoring eight of his team-high 23 points in the extra period.
The Sun Devils forced the overtime despite trailing the Cardinal by seven points with 1:49 left to play, and eventually out-worked their much taller opponents to pick up what will undoubtedly be a quality win come NCAA tournament time.

ASU(16-7, 6-5 Pac-10) played all of overtime without the services of junior forward Jeff Pendergraph, who fouled out with 15 seconds left in regulation. But even without their best low-post presence, the Sun Devils managed to out-work the physically imposing frontline of Stanford (20-4, 9-3 Pac-10) and avenged their loss from the previous meeting last month.

With Pendergraph forced to be a spectator in overtime much like he was when he had foul trouble during the teams' first meeting, Harden was more than willing to take over the game.

"When Jeff went out, I had the mindset of going to the hole strong and finishing and probably getting fouled," Harden said after the game. "My teammates did a real good job of putting me in places to be productive and score."

Harden had a monster of a game on both ends of the floor, scoring 23 points on 8-of-17 from the field, and totaling five rebounds, five assists and five steals.

"He's clutch. Whenever the heat is on, he's ready to go, he wants the ball, he's trying to make stuff happen," Pendergraph said.

Not to be outdone, the starting front-court combination of Pendergraph and freshman Rihards Kuksiks made things happen defensively for ASU by playing well against the talented Lopez twins from Stanford.

Although he struggled in their first meeting, Pendergraph scored 15 points this time around, but more importantly pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds in 39 minutes of action.

Kuksiks helped in the battle inside for rebounding position. He scored 15 points on three-of-nine shooting from three-point range and grabbed four rebounds.

"We've been looking for another guy to come along," ASU head coach Herb Sendek said of the improved play of Kuksiks. "I expect he can help us."

ASU received a number of key contributions from all eight players who saw action.

Whether it was sophomore Derek Glasser and Eric Boateng's free-throws to ice the game in overtime, or Kuksiks and Ty Abbott hitting three's late in the second half, the Sun Devils had a complete team effort.

"James did a remarkable job putting us on his back. But so many guys contributed. Derek was clutch at the free throw line Eric gave us a huge offensive rebound that allowed us to maintain possession of the ball and obviously he made some free throws," Sendek said.

Even more remarkable was the fortitude shown by the Sun Devils when things weren't going their way.

During a ten minute stretch in the second half Stanford went on a 26-2 run and seemed to have control of the game, ASU remained focused and continued to chip away what looked like an insurmountable lead.

"Basketball is a sport of runs - tonight that was really the case. We got off to a good start, but they went on that (26-2) run," Sendek said. "You look at the score board at 7:59, we're down 14. At 3:18 we're down 9, and at 1:49 we're down 7. It's just remarkable that this team somehow found a way to land on their feet tonight, especially when Jeff and Rihards fouled out."

The Sun Devils landed in overtime thanks to a dramatic comeback that included two big three pointers from Kuksiks and Abbott with less than two minutes remaining in the game.

On the other end, Stanford couldn't knock down several key free throws down the stretch, which allowed ASU a number of chances to get back in the game.

Sophomore Brook Lopez, who scored a game-high 30 points, missed several key free-throws down the stretch.

His brother, Robin, who had 16 points and 8 rebounds, also missed one of two important free-throws with :31 seconds left in the second half.

On the next possession for ASU following Robin Lopez's miss, Harden wasted no time driving the length of the court to the basket for a quick layup, making the score 59-58 Stanford with :15 seconds left.

Without hesitating, Pendergraph fouled Brook Lopez on the inbound, which instantly stopped the clock and forced Pendergraph out of the game with his fifth foul.

Lopez missed his first free-throw, but made his second, which gave the Cardinal a two-point advantage.

Following the made basket, Harden took the ball up the court and made a contested layup to send the game into overtime.

ASU came out aggressive in the overtime period, with Harden scoring back-to-back layups on the first two possessions.

Harden continued to drive to the basket, as he was relentless on the glass. Several put-back attempts on his own shots landed him at the free-throw line.

Not only did he convert five-of-seven from the charity stripe, but Harden totaled four steals in overtime alone.

With Harden making plays left and right, several of his teammates also stepped up in the games closing moments.

On Stanford's last possession, trailing by three, the Sun Devils did an excellent job closing out on the Cardinal shooters.

Although they allowed three attempts to tie the game in the final sequence, only one was a clean look at the basket.

After scrambling around on defense, Boateng came away with a defensive rebound, and sealed the win with a free throw, making it a four-point victory.


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