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January 10, 2008I sat in the nosebleeds with a friend and my back against the wall at Wells Fargo last night. About 4,000 ASU students turned out in yellow to wave white towels when needed, and they were needed often. The Devils chanted "ASU, ASU, ASU" while Arizona responded with "U of A, U of A, U of A". The roar was deafening. Nobody in the Grand Canyon State has forgotten how big this classic rivalry is and they don't need to be reminded.
I had a flashback to when I was 12 and sitting in those same nosebleed seats with some friends. We would ride our bikes to the games. The players on the court then were some of the best in the country and many went on to the NBA. The Devils were a top ten team. Ned Wulk was the coach. Lever, Scott, Lister, Williams, and Nash were the stars.
I thought one day I would be out there on the court with them. I couldn't have known that over 30 years later I would return and get the exact same feeling I had as a boy as I watched them in awe and all of my dreams were still possible.
This was one of the most exciting games I can ever remember at ASU and I've been to a lot of them going back to about 1971. ASU had struggled mightily against the Cats losing 24 of the last 25 games to them. That's one win in the last twelve years. The in-state boys showed well in crunch time with Ty Abbott, Christian Polk, and even Zane Johnson all hitting huge treys at one point in the slugfest.
When the final shot had to be taken they cleared it out for James Harden up top with 30 seconds left to play in regulation. The crowd had been going completely insane in the previous few minutes as the Devils tried to claw back and they had finally tied it up with less than a minute to play.
Now they had the last shot to win it. As I looked around I noticed that all 14,000 people had stopped breathing and were holding their collective breath. All of the air had been momentarily sucked out of the building. Then the goose bumps came back.....like old friends.
When you are an athlete as a child this is what you dream about. You have the ball when the team needs you most. Your opponent is staring you down and saying "Come on and bring it". The whole team clears out for you. You dribble slowly as the clock winds down from 10 seconds left.
Suddenly you explode left, then right, you give him the shoulder then take it away as he drops back grasping at air. You have a wide open shot from three and you elevate and fire BUT........the delirious crowd groans.....it doesn't fall, and the game goes into OT.
I could smell victory last night and had the goose bumps head to toe to prove it before I exhaled and the air in the arena returned back to normal for a few more minutes. "Here we go baby, here we GO!! Five more minutes of OT...."
The students went crazy again. The Wildcat fans chanted "U of A" over and over and were met with "Sucks" by the Devils. Four thousand white towels were whipping through the air with a fury this place hadn't seen in at least a decade when most of the fans were still small children and I still felt like a young man with a few dreams still fully intact.
The teams battled hard and it was one of the most physical games I can ever remember seeing. The refs let them play. Bodies dropped all over the floor like leaves on a windy winter day. ASU had never taken the lead in the game until it scored first in overtime. In the end it came down to James Harden again with the ball in his hands at the top of the key.
He drove again and again up the middle in heavy traffic as bodies bounced off his from many different angles. When he didn't make the shots he was fouled and went to the line in a magnificent performance for the ages. He had 22 points after the half. None of them came easy.
I looked down and the Sun Devil bench was flipping out. They were hopping as high as they could and high-fiving each other. They worked hard for this. When Harden hit one they would erupt in joy. They were part of a historical moment in ASU sports history.
Harden came through for us in the greatest pressure performance by a freshman that Wells Fargo Arena has ever seen. He outgunned Chase Budinger and chased the Cats back to Tucson where they will lick their wounds and prepare for the next all out battle for the State of Arizona.
Never before have the Sun Devils beat The U to take over first place in the PacTen and remain undefeated in league play. They knew they were making history. I knew I was reliving it. And it was the most satisfying thing in the world. It's just as much fun experiencing the thrill of victory when you get older, if you never stop hoping and giving yourself the chance to achieve new dreams. I can now dream again. Go Devils!!