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February 10, 2013Arizona State coach Herb Sendek understands what it's like to have little margin for error and so too do his program's fans.
Three years ago Sendek saw his team go 22-10 and 12-6 in conference play only to be left on the cutting room floor when NCAA Tournament bids were handed out.
Senior center Ruslan Pateev is the only Sun Devil who remembers that heartache, but if his team somehow is left out of the Tournament this year, there's little doubt they'll look at Saturday's 62-59 loss to Stanford in front of 8,459 at Wells Fargo Arena as one that could have made the difference.
"Definitely disappointing," senior forward Carrick Felix said. "This is our home. This is our house. We're always taught to protect our house. And that's something we didn't do tonight."
Arizona State fell two off the pace in the Pac-12 standings at 18-6 overall and 7-4 in league play, but more importantly, lost a game in which it was favored and needed to win if it wanted to have some remaining margin for error in its goal of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large entrant.
Stanford, playing well of late, improved to 15-9 (6-5) and is just a game behind the Sun Devils with a goal of getting one of four Pac-12 Tournament opening round byes very achievable.
Perhaps cognizant of the game's significance, ASU staged a furious rally beginning when Sendek went to a smaller lineup at 14:23 of the second half while trailing 49-34. With no player taller than 6-foot-7 forward Jonathan Gilling on the court the rest of the game, the Sun Devils chopped away until they trailed by just three points in the game's final 14 seconds.
After Gilling hit a 3-pointer to make it a one possession game, senior guard Chris Colvin got a steal and reserve sophomore guard Bo Barnes missed what would have been a game tying 3-pointer with five seconds left.
Stanford threw an in bounds pass off the scoreboard with .7 seconds left giving ASU another chance, but it couldn't get the ball in bounded to one of its own players and the Cardinal celebrated a valuable road win while the Sun Devils lamented what could have been.
"We definitely didn't play ASU basketball," said Felix. "I think we kind of took a lot of quick shots and just got out of our offense a little bit. It just comes down to playing hard and free throws. It always comes down to little things like free throws, 50-50 balls and rebounds."
Felix, who led ASU with 16 points and 10 rebounds, Gilling and junior guard Evan Gordon combined to make just 12 of 39 attempts from the field as routine looked seemed anything but, including a Gordon airball that would made brought ASU to within one point with 1:17 remaining.
For the game, the Sun Devils shot 34.4 percent from the field and made just 8 of 16 from the free throw line.
Sendek's move to the small lineup -- designed to combat Stanford's success moving its bigs out onto the floor to shoot the ball on the perimeter -- worked, as a frenetic defensive effort led by Felix and freshman guard Jahii Carson gave ASU a chance late.
"The posts were pretty much getting whatever they wanted to do so we tried to switch it up and catch them off guard," Carson said "A little bit of pressure on the guards, make them speed it up a little bit and get them to not get the ball to the bigs as much. When we play like that I think it causes teams a little bit more trouble. The guards can't get the ball to the bigs and takes them out of the flow of the game."
In the first half alone, Stanford 6-foot-10 backup center John Gage had 11 points, 6-foot-10 forward Dwight Powell had nine points, and 6-foot-7 forward Josh Huestis had 10 points. The three players combined to make 6 of 7 3-pointers in what Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins called his team's best shooting half of the season. it gave the a 36-28 halftime lead.
"They're the number one three point shooting team in our league," Sendek said. "They're a very physical, aggressive team. I think they're outstanding, I really do. I think they're a really good team who presents some matchup problems, not just for us, but many of their opponents.
"We weren't getting any benefit on offense from [having a center in the game] and defensively we were having a hard time with our bigs out on the perimeter guarding them, so we tried to matchup with them a little better by going small ball. I think it helped us close the gap."
Ultimately, it didn't close it enough and free throws -- in which ASU ranks last in the conference -- may have been the difference, its poor shooting from the field notwithstanding. ASU had just eight turnovers and only allowed Stanford four offensive rebounds.
"In a close game, which it seems like every game we play is close, we just don't give ourselves any breathing room with our free-throw shooting," Sendek said. "That's hard to overcome."
So too might this loss in their post-season aspirations. At the very least, it reduces their margin for error to about nil.