March 13, 2008

ASU fate in hands of NCAA Committee following loss

Let the waiting begin.

A win over fourth-seeded USC in Thursday's Pac-10 Tournament quarterfinal would have almost guaranteed fifth-seeded ASU a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But a 59-55 loss and a questionable last-minute foul call have left the Sun Devils with only one thing to do.

"We're going to wait until Selection Sunday before we find out where we're headed," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "But right now we're just going to keep our fingers crossed and hope like heck that we've done enough to be in the tournament."

Had a controversial whistle not been blown, ASU (19-12, 9-9 Pac-10) might be singing a different tune.

ASU trailed 57-55 in the final minute, when freshman guard James Harden nabbed a steal with 23 seconds remaining. He ran the length of the floor and laid it up at the other end only to have it rim out. Junior forward Jeff Pendergraph trailed the fast break and dunked in the rebound over USC forward DaVon Jefferson, but was called for an over the back call to foul out.

"It felt like a bad sports movie," Pendergraph said. "I didn't feel any [contact], I thought I just jumped over him and dunked it. I didn't feel anybody try to box me out or anything, I was just up there. I just put the ball in the rim."

It was a feeling all to familiar for the Sun Devils, who lost a contest in similar fashion against Washington State on Jan. 26. Harden made a last-second drive in that contest and looked to draw contact on the play, but no foul was called and ASU fell 56-55.

With a win in either of those games, the Sun Devils would have reached the magical 20-win plateau and seemingly been an undeniable choice for a tournament berth. But it's out of their hands now and in those of the 10-member NCAA selection committee.

"It is what it is," Sendek said.

The contest was just what you would expect out of the No. 4/No.5 game in the Pac-10 Tournament. No team led by more than eight the entire afternoon or was able to make a game-changing run.

ASU really hurt its chances by getting in to foul trouble once again. Harden and Pendergraph each picked up their fourth fouls with more than 4:30 left in the game. The Sun Devils also got killed on the boards, giving up 14 offensive rebounds that allowed USC (21-10, 11-7) to outscore ASU 17-0 on second-chance points.

"They really hurt us in that area," Sendek said. "That was a big key for them over us."

ASU did look very active on the defensive end, however, and amassed 14 steals on 19 USC turnovers. USC guard O.J. Mayo scored a game-high 23 points while Jefferson and forward Taj Gibson each added 11 points and nine rebounds.

Harden scored a team-high 16 points to go along with seven steals and Pendergraph chipped in 13 points and six rebounds.

The Sun Devils used a pair of 3-pointers from both Harden and freshman forward Rihards Kuksiks to build a 17-9 lead to start the game, but USC responded with a 10-0 run to take the lead.

The teams traded baskets until the closing seconds of the half, when ASU was able to make a big play to go into the locker room with momentum. Harden stole the ball from Mayo and dished it to freshman guard Ty Abbott who dunked it hard on the other end to cut USC's lead to 34-32 just before the clock expired.

Sophomore guard Derek Glasser hit a jumper with 9:35 remaining in the game to give ASU its biggest second-half lead at 49-42, but the Sun Devils didn't convert a field goal the rest of the way.

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