Sun Devils' Defense Shines in NIT Win

For a few minutes in the first half, it looked as if the 9 pm tip-off affected ASU more than the jet-lagged Southern Illinois squad. However, when the Sun Devils did shed the cobwebs the Salukis were just another team that fell victim to the maroon and gold's effective zone defense. ASU held the visitors to 29.3% shooting from the field and won their second round NIT match 65-51.

"I thought our defense was terrific tonight," said ASU Head Coach Herb Sendek. "Holding a team like Southern Illinois to 29% for the game is outstanding. I thought our guys were focused, intense, alert and played really hard…a good team win over a program that knows how to win this time of year. They were one of 12 teams to go to six consecutive NCAA tournaments. Last year they were in the Sweet 16."

"I thought it was a really physical, tough game. I think both teams really played hard."

Forward Jeff Pendergraph, sporting a bruise to his eye from Tuesday's win against Alabama State added: "There were no pansies tonight. That's for sure."

Southern Illinois (18-15) took command of the game and went on a 7-0 run to being the contest. Arizona State (21-12) didn't get on the board until the 16:48 mark, when James Harden scored on a lay-up. Nonetheless, the Salukis' dominance was short lived. Three pointers by Harden and Jerren Shipp gave the Devils the lead, 16-15, with 6:50 remaining in the half. The home team never relinquished their advantage from that point on and led 28-23 at the half.

ASU began the second half on an 11-2 run which sealed the game's fate, as they enjoyed a 39-25 edge at the 15:12 mark of the period. Despite foul trouble by their big men, Jeff Pendergraph and Eric Boateng, the Sun Devils kept on rolling. They got a boost from Jamelle McMillan who scored all of his nine points in the second half, including back-to-back three pointers and Pendergraph's eight points in that period.

All in all, ASU had a double digit lead for the last 16 plus minutes of the game, and converted 15-16 free throws, good for 93.8%, in the second half.

Harden paced the Sun Devils with 16 points and seven assists. Pendergraph flirted with a triple double as he had 12 points, a team-high 10 rebounds and tied a school record with eight blocks. Ty Abbott was the third ASU player in double figures with 11. ASU had 13 turnovers and gave up 19 offensive rebounds as they lost the battle on the glass 36-31. Southern Illinois' Randal Falker led all players with 19 points and 13 rebounds.

"The only reason I had blocks, is because I couldn't get defensive rebounds," said Pendergraph. "If I was getting those, I wouldn't have had as many (blocks)." At the end of the game Sendek and his players exchanged high fives with the student section, as a token of their appreciation to the support of that group. "I was excited by our crowd," said the Sun Devil skipper. "I thought they were terrific. Nine o'clock game on a weeknight…our students in particular continue to just do a great job for us. It was once again a really good college basketball atmosphere."

"You can see the college basketball environment here taking off."

"They love us," claimed a smiling Pendergraph when asked about the energized 4,961 in attendance at Wells Fargo on Thursday night. "They're a part of us. They're the sixth man. They've been through the storms. They were there when we were losing…this year they've been with us through ups and downs and they're just faithful. That's why we went over there and thanked them. They are not bandwagon fans and they deserve to be recognized."

Granted, the Sun Devils would love to have played in the other tournament on Thursday night. Yet, it is quite evident that Sendek's squad is determined to have a good showing in this NIT tournament and is far from taking it lightly. After all, it can serve a strong building block for a young and emerging program such as ASU's.

"We don't have any excuses not to play with energy and effort. That's what we're supposed to do," Sendek explained. "The National Invitational Tournament is a storied, rich tradition tournament. There have been great teams, great coaches, amazing players who have played in this field through out the years…in no way would we ever want to come out and not play with energy and passion given this opportunity."

Pendergraph stated that instead of complaining why his team isn't in the NCAA tournament, he and his teammates have set out a feat they intend to accomplish. "We want to go to Madison Square Garden (site of the NIT's Final Four) and cut down some nets," he noted. "I want a ring. We want to have some fun. We don't wanna go home. If we went that far, that speaks volumes on itself that we could probably been one of the top 34 at-large teams."

Just like his coach, the junior is very mindful of the importance of playing games in the NIT. "This isn't some kind of spring Rec league where guys just get together at random, like they're friends from work or something," said Pendergraph. "These (opponents) are guys that have been playing together in college and they come here to win just like we are. Especially this far in the tournament, these guys are very serious about what they do. They're not gonna be here just to show up and be on T.V."

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