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November 18, 2009

Win earns Sun Devils NIT semifinals berth

Now you're in New York.

It's unknown if Arizona State players listened to the city's urban anthem song "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys in the locker room following their 52-49 win in Tuesday's West Regional Championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off, but nobody would blame them if they had.

A dramatic 12-1 march through the game's final buzzer, highlighted by a Ty Abbott floating go-ahead jumper with 21 seconds left, allowed the Sun Devils to overcome an eight point deficit to Texas Christian with under four minutes to play.

"Tremendous gut check win for our team tonight," Sun Devil coach Herb Sendek said. "Nothing fancy about it, just a lot of blood and guts."

The win sends the Sun Devils (3-0) to New York City, where on Nov. 25 they will play one of the college game's most esteemed programs, No. 9 Duke, on arguably the grandest stage in all of basketball, Madison Square Garden. No. 12 Connecticut will play Louisiana State in the other semifinal game.

Abbott, a junior who returned to practice from a knee injury just last week, wasn't expected to take the game's most important shot.

Then again, nobody else was either.

Gone with James Harden, last year's Most Valuable Player in the Pac-10, are the days when everyone in the gym knew where the ball would be going in crucial situations.

"We were just playing," Sendek said. "We were playing. We run a motion offense. We actually had two things we were looking to get to before that happened but it broke down. What we were trying to do broke down. We run a motion offense and Ty just went off the dribble, which our offense is spaced to accommodate and he made a great play."

While Abbott may have had the game's most important play, it was senior center Eric Boateng who was its top player.

Boateng had his first career double-double in a Sun Devil uniform, finishing with 21 points and 12 rebounds. With TCU electing not to double team Boateng, he had his way in the low post, scoring repeatedly at point blank range.

In the end, Boateng made 9-of-11 shots from the floor and generally looked poised and confident as he settles into the role of replacing Jeff Pendergraph, now in the NBA.

"What can you say about Eric, career best game; literally put us on his back and carried us across the finish line with 21 and 12," Sendek said.

"What I saw is just the process," Boateng said. "It's just another step in the season and we're learning things about each other and today was just a situation where we had to come together and overcome some things and I'm happy and grateful that we did."

Boateng was the first option in the game's key possession, but absent that being open, the ball was expected to be in freshman wing Trent Lockett's hands for a dribble drive. Lockett wound up passing it to Abbott, who hit a type of mid-range shot that isn't typical of his court game.

With a three second differential between the game and shot clocks trailing by one point, Sendek said he wanted to get a shot up at the rim quickly so as to be able to extend the game if possible following a missed attempt.

"I thought about [holding the ball for a late shot clock attempt] but down one I didn't want to limit us to just one chance to win," Sendek said. "If you do that you limit yourself to only one chance at winning. If you increase the likelihood of additional possessions there's more things that can happen for you to win."

The game deciding shot by Abbott shot wouldn't have even been possible had ASU not played a near perfect three-plus minutes of basketball leading up to it.

With his team trailing 48-40 at 3:54 left, Sendek took a timeout to draw up a set play that resulted in a quick Rihards Kuksiks 3-pointer. Sendek took another timeout to set his defense and they responded by not giving up another field goal the rest of the way.

Boateng, who struggled tremendously at the free throw line last season, continued to display huge strides with his results -- as well as with his form -- as he made two key shots from the stripe late to go along with a basket inside.

Kuksiks scored 12 points from the Sun Devils, making two big 3-point shots after missing all three attempts from behind the arc in the first-half. He also took a key charge late after apparently struggling with his position defense at times Monday.

ASU earned the win despite shooting just 3-of-13 from 3-point range, in large part due to the effort from Boateng and a 10-rebound advantage in the game.

"We're excited about New York," Sendek said, "who wouldn't be?"

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