ASU Overcomes Sluggish 2nd Half in NIT Opener

"We shouldn't be here" was the chant from ASU's student section. Yet, the Sun Devils didn't let the disappointment of Selection Sunday linger and played a solid first half against the Hornets of Alabama State. The last twenty minutes however featured a lackluster performance by the hosts, but the maroon and gold were able to prevail 64-53 and advance to the NIT's second round.

"First half we came out with a chip on our shoulder," said ASU guard James Harden. "Guys played well, made some shots. Second half, I guess we got too comfortable…they made a run and picked up their intensity on defense. We had to just settle down and come out with the victory."

Harden scored eight of his team's first 17 points, and along with its trademark suffocating zone defense Arizona State (20-12) held Alabama State (20-11) scoreless for the first four plus minutes of the game, and enjoyed a 17-3 edge at the 12:19 mark of the opening stanza.

"We obviously started the game playing very well tonight," said Head Coach Herb Sendek, "most certainly aided by the fact that we were making shots, especially Ty. He got us going on the offensive end. Our defense was focused…but unfortunately for us we didn't maintain that level of concentration and focus during the second twenty minutes."

"I guess we did what we had to, to win the game, mostly on the efforts that came in the first half. In the second half we had a difficult time scoring and just didn't play with the same level of sharpness that we had in the first half."

Ty Abbott scored five three pointers in the first half, and along with a couple of Rihards Kuksiks' long range baskets helped the hosts jump to a 30-11 lead with 5:40 remaining in the period. The Devils cruised to a 39-21 halftime advantage, easily playing one of their best first halves of the year.

And then came the second half.

ASU shot just 31.8% from the field, 1-8 beyond the arc, while the Hornets were 40.7% from the field in that period. Alabama State was able to cut the deficit to 59-51 with 3:06 remaining in the contest, but ASU limited them to just two points the rest of the way.

The Sun Devils' were formidable from the charity stripe in this half, 10-14, and along with Harden's 14 second half points kept the visitors from pulling out the upset. Eric Boateng continued to display his improvement, and nearly notched a double-double with eight points and a career-high ten boards in the game.

"I was really pleased with Eric's rebounding," Sendek commented on the backup center's play against the Hornets. "It's something that we really have been after him about and challenging him to give us that kind of effort on the glass. Not only did he get ten rebounds, but he had a number of them in traffic today…tonight he really went after the ball."

Harden led all players with 25 points on 9-21 shooting, as well as notching his own career best in rebounds with 13. Abbott scored all of his 15 points in the first half. Derek Glasser had five assists on the night. ASU was just 63.6% overall from the line but controlled the glass 43-35. Andrew Hayles paced the Hornets with 12 points.

In the second round of the NIT ASU will host Southern Illinois, a 69-53 winner over Oklahoma State on Thursday night. It will be a late night affair for both teams with a tip-off time of 9 pm PT.

Sendek didn't feel that this quick turnaround was an advantage or disadvantage for its squad, since both teams have little time to prepare and share the limited knowledge of each other. The Sun Devil skipper quipped that the unusual start time is "Friday to me" and encouraged the Sun Devils fans to take a long nap before attending the game on Thursday.

"When you're hip anyway the action doesn't really start until nine o'clock anyway," he stated, "…and I'm very hip. You can quote me on this (smile)."

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