Maui Momentum?

Last Monday, ASU was overwhelmed in their season opener and first game in the Maui Invitational. Prior to his Saturday's press conference, Coach Herb Sendek, dressed casually fresh off practice, jokingly complained that he had no advance warning about TV cameras being present. Coming back and winning the next two games in Hawaii left the maroon and gold, and their coach, in good spirits.

Arizona State (2-1) kicked-off the 2007-08 season with a 77-54 drubbing to Illinois. The Sun Devils shook that defeat off, to come back and offer a trashing of their own, as they beat Princeton 61-42. Their last game on the serene Hawaiian island was a classic dogfight, as they edged LSU in overtime 87-84. Overall, a good start to non-conference play as ASU prepares for its first regular season home game on Monday, against Cal Poly.

"I thought we got better throughout the tournament," said Sendek. "We really took a shot between the eyes. We were down and they were counting. Then we had to play the next morning, not even the next afternoon, and our guys responded well against a patient, deliberate, difficult to play against program in Princeton. It could have taken some teams, going all the way back home, getting together to regroup from what happened in the opener…but our guys were able to do that on their own."

Their game against LSU tipped off at 9 am local time, which on to itself was a challenge. Adversity continued to hit the maroon and gold, as they led for large portions of the game, at times in double digits, yet found themselves trailing in the waning moments of the contest.

"We fell behind 64-60, took a timeout, and went on a 7-0 run to regain the lead. Key part of the game. I think it was around the 8, 7 minute mark," Sendek recalled. "Then had the air taken out of us again by a spectacular three (point shot) and have to come back and win the overtime. So I thought all those were positive signs for our team."

Playing in one of the most popular tourists destinations in the country, the obvious question was brought up – how hard is it for any team to stay focused in a place such as Maui? For starters, the lack of down time and playing three games in three days does ultimately help to keep out distractions.

"I think our guys knew why they were there. We had some (down) time, the first couple of days; we were adjusting to the time zone," Sendek remarked. "The tournament was very nice and hospitable…but our guys were really anxious to play. That was the thing about the Illinois game. I can't describe to you how anxious they were to go out there and play, and then it just didn't go our way. Some by our own doing and some plays where they scored on some crazy loose ball situations."

As with any tournament, different players at different times did step up and help the cause. "At the LSU game Jeff (Pendergraph) got off to a great start, in part because Jamelle (McMillan) did a great job getting him the ball early in the game," Sendek explained, "and Derek (Glasser) continued. Down the home stretch James (Harden) really put us on his back. Derek along with James made some critical free throws that allowed us to stay with our head above water. I thought Ty (Abbott) did a great job getting us going in the first half against Princeton, hitting five threes. Eric (Boateng) really bounced back well and gave us a shot in the arm after the first game."

Whether it was successfully putting behind them the Illinois loss, or grinding out an overtime victory against LSU, the Sun Devils' resiliency was on full display. "That was a positive sign," Sendek noted. "Just because we did it then, doesn't guarantee us that we'll do it next time. It gives us something to build on, something to talk about."

In the beginning of the season, there was great anticipation over the team's MVP from last year, forward Jeff Pendergraph, playing along side Duke transfer center Eric Boateng, giving the Devils a formidable inside presence. As the tournament proceeded, more often that not the two were substituting for each other and rarely shared the floor. ASU's head coach said that trying to figure out how this tandem will function, isn't unusual and just part of bigger process the team is going through in these early stages of the season.

"I don't think it's just a matter of Jeff and Eric, I think it's just a matter of our team. We're still gonna go through a time period where we work out who our best combinations are, what our ideal rotation is," said Sendek. "It's not uncommon to not know that at this point of the season. Some of those things are gonna play themselves out in games."

Jeff Pendergraph commented that he thinks him and Boateng substituting for each other is probably part of the new plan for both of them. Just like Sendek, the forward also chalked this all up to the natural sorting out of player rotations.

"We're still trying to figure out what to do and how to (create scoring opportunities) for both of us," Pendergraph stated. "We're just gonna feed off each other. So like one's in, banging, doing what he needs to do, and then the next one comes in and it's the same thing the whole time – it's just constant pounding from the inside. It's not like who's gonna come in when one of us is tired. It's gonna just me and Eric, me and Eric the whole time."

Pendergraph scored eight points in the first two games. He admitted about being, along with his team, overwhelmed in the first game and trying too hard to do well in the second contest. He injured his lower back against Princeton, but played by far his best game the next day against LSU win scoring 25 points (10 in the game's first five plus minutes) and collecting ten rebounds. "It was just attitude," he said. "I knew things didn't start well for me the first two games, it was rough. I had to come out and mean business. I knew it starts with me – if I have the right attitude, everybody else will have the right attitude. If we just feed off each other, we'll do well."

In that LSU win, it appeared that the two-man game between Pendergraph and James Harden was producing very nice dividends. The junior said that it's nothing that he and Harden talked about in the huddle; it was just the flow of the game that created that successful partnership.

Harden, mentioned about the great importance Pendergraph has on his team's offense, and remarked that he and the forward, along with the rest of the squad just got better as the tournament went on.

"I was sluggish in the first game (scoring just six points). They (Illinois) just had a great start, 20-0, and we just didn't know how to recover from that," said Harden. "We came with a mindset to the second game that we're gonna start over and came out with two victories. Coach talked to us after the first game and asked us ‘what we really wanted out of this season?' We know we wanted to win and that's the mindset we came out with." Case in point, Harden had 22 and 23 points respectively against Princeton and LSU.

Boateng, just like many other of his teammates, played better as the tournament progressed. Sendek wasn't he least disappointed in this heralded newcomer, who sat out all of last season due to his transfer. "I think he was probably, like the rest of our team, overwhelmed against Illinois. It just wasn't our night and I don't think it's fair to single out Eric," Sendek commented. "I thought he came back and played very well against Princeton and LSU. I don't think he changed his game in that period of time. I think that just like the rest of us, he probably just relaxed a little bit."

"He had some game flurry under his belt and that enabled him to play (well)…I'd imagine that it's similar from the stand point that it's important to get hit (in the sport of boxing) once or twice, and then it's like ‘OK, now I know what it feels like. Let's continue.' But until you're hit that first time it's different."

Sendek stated that the Maui tournament gave his team a very "honest and immediate feedback", as well as a clearer picture of the group's strengths and weaknesses. He admitted that he didn't have much sleep for the next few days after the loss to Illinois, and enjoying the paradise-like surroundings was certainly out of the question.

Since the LSU game ended nearly ten hours before their flight back to Tempe, Sendek took advantage and proceeded to the hotel's pool to meet his family there. No soon after he arrived, it started raining. However, he was determined to stay there, and try to relax and enjoy what his team had accomplished

That scenario was perhaps the perfect metaphor for his squad and what lies ahead. While Sendek feels good about what was accomplished in Maui, he knows there's no reprieve waiting for ASU in Tempe, as they face a Cal Poly squad which Sendek called "a veteran team, which is very well schooled…we have a great challenge here at home Monday, coming off the Maui trip."

Nonetheless, for such a young team still trying to figure out its identity, winning its next two games after what could have been a demoralizing defeat could be a prelude to a season that could exceed expectations. If it does materialize in that manner, there's no doubt that the success of the Maui Invitational is what started a tidal wave that lifted the Sun Devils to unforeseen heights.

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