A Sun Devil Trifecta

LOS ANGELES - On paper, Arizona had more riding on today's contest, playing for a tournament berth, compared to ASU merely joking for a favorable seed in the big dance. Ultimately, it was the Sun Devils' discipline which prevailed over the urgency of the Wildcats, as they win the third installment of the rivalry this year, 68-56, in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.

Arizona State (23-8) shot 52 percent in each of the halves, and limited Arizona (19-13) to a 25.7 percent clip in the second period. Yet, according to ASU head coach Herb Sendek, there was another statistical category that heavily contributed to the maroon and gold's Thursday afternoon victory.

"I thought that a key for us today was not turning the ball over," Sendek noted. "Playing against their extended defenses and presses and only having six turnovers I thought was real important because not only does it open the door for them but it really feeds their transition game and makes their shots impossible to defend.

"The team also played great together, which I think is something they have done all season. It is really a positive trait of this team."

ASU found its offensive rhythm early and often and following a Jeff Pendergraph dunk opened an 18-11 margin at the 13:19 mark of the first half. One of the Sun Devils' biggest contributors during that stretch was Ty Abbott. For the second consecutive game, the sophomore is starting to regain his shooting touch after a miserable two-month offensive stretch. The guard had eight of his 11 points in the first half and tallied six rebounds.

"Ty really stepped up today," Sendek commented. "His rebounding in particular was really important to us because we were having an extremely difficult time keeping Arizona off the glass.

"We were decimated in that today and I shutter to think where we would be without Ty's help. It could have been uglier for us on the glass."

Arizona had 16 offensive boards in the game, and an overall 36-30 edge in caroms.

Arizona answered ASU's first half run with an 11-0 run of their own, to grab the lead 22-18, and continued to hold the Sun Devils at bay and lead 34-32 at the half.

"They started changing up their defense every possession and we had to get used to it," said Pendergraph. "At first we were scoring with ease but they changed it up and we started struggling a bit.

"But coach does what he does, making good coaching decisions and then it was in our hands to execute and then it was up to us to do what we do."

ASU stormed out to start the second half, outscored Arizona 10-3, and enjoyed a 42-37 edge at the 17:05 mark of the second stanza. The Sun Devils never looked back from that point on.

"In the second half we couldn't get anything to fall," said Arizona head coach Russ Pennell. "I credit Arizona State's defense for that. They just don't give you anything easy."

James Harden scored 21 points in this period and negated Pendergraph's foul trouble during that time. ASU pushed its lead to 58-48 with five and half minutes left in the game. All the Cats could do is foul their rival, but six straight made free throws by Harden squashed any hopes for an Arizona comeback.

Even though there was seemingly no pressure on Herb Sendek's team, it appears that his players defied that theory, which undoubtedly aided them at the Staples Center today.

"Until they call our name we don't know if we will make it," said Harden of his squad's post-season prospects, "so we need to play like we have our backs to the wall and get as many games as we can and I think we did a pretty good job of that today."

This game was more than likely Harden's last against Arizona, as he is expected to forgo his last two years of eligibility and enter the NBA draft.

"For me it feels great never losing to U of A in my career so far," he said. "They had the upside for most of the years and it's special to be part of that (the five-game run). They are a great team and a powerhouse, and we are working to make this team a powerhouse as well."

Time will tell if this loss did actually cost the Wildcats a 25th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. Sendek, who pointed out the close battles between both teams in 2009, believes that today's defeat should have no bearing on his rival's post-season fate.

"I have been an advocate the in the past few weeks for the Pac-10," he said. "I think our league is as deep, as talented and balanced as any in the country. Do I believe that Arizona is one of the top 65 teams in the country? I would say yes."

"It's just out of our hands," Pennell remarked. "We'll be just like everyone else sitting there watching on Sunday. It just boils down to at the end of the day is our body of work good enough?"

Harden led all players on the floor with 27 points, to go along with eight rebounds. Pendergraph just missed another double-double with 10 points and nine boards. Jordan Hill paced Arizona with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

ASU lives to see another day in the league tourney, and beating their rival aside, that's big enough a reason for Pendergraph to rejoice. This was ASU's first Pac-10 tournament win since it was reinstated in 2002.

"It feels good to be able to get on the bus and go back to the hotel to rest, not to go home," the senior stated. "To know that you have another game coming up against another good opponent is good. To send somebody home for a change is a nice feeling."

The Sun Devils will play the winner of the Washington-Stanford contest Friday at 6 p.m. Playing 24 hours later will certainly be a tough task for an ASU team lacking depth. "I think our biggest challenge for us right now will be recovery," Sendek acknowledged. "We are a very thin team, and don't have a lot of depth in our roster so we will have to recover. We gave a lot mentally and physically today.

"We will need to rest and recover and come out ready to play tomorrow."

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