"I felt we were weary on defense," said ASU head coach Herb Sendek. "I don't think we played with great energy on the defensive end of the floor. We had a difficult time getting stops; it just seemed like we were a step slow on every bounce of the ball.
"Our defense lost the zip that it had in the first half. We played like a tired basketball team in the second half quite frankly."
James Harden had just six points in the first half, but also tallied five assists in that period. Harden scored on just two long range baskets in large part due to a suffocating defense by USC guard Daniel Hackett.
"Hackett is a great defender and a great basketball player," said Harden. "His primary goal is to contain me and that's all he has to worry about. USC has a real exciting defense. They're such a unique defense."
"James' presence on the court creates opportunities for other guys to score," Sendek stated referring to the guard's game-high eight assists. "Sometimes he doesn't get the credit he deserves because of all the attention he draws that allows other people to eat."
Jeff Pendergraph was at the receiving end of most of those basket helpers by Harden and had 10 points in the opening stanza, as did Derek Glasser. Those two players along with Harden were named to the All-Pac 10 tournament team.
After being tied at 15 apiece at the 12:41 mark, the Sun Devils registered a 12-4 run to lead 27-19 with seven minutes remaining in the half. Both teams went down to the locker room with ASU ahead 39-24.
With an invite to the NCAA tournament on the line, USC expectedly came out in the second half with an abundance of energy, largely manifested in a full court pressure defense. ASU just turned over the ball six times in this stanza, but their offense was clearly disrupted.
The Trojans trailed just 48-45 at the 13:18 mark.
"They came out and sort of hit us between the eyes in the second half," Sendek acknowledged. "They went on that flurry and then we regained our footing."
The Sun Devils were able to withstand the rally until the waning moments of the contest. With just over two minutes remaining they held a 62-57 edge, but were outscored 9-1 the rest of the way. USC didn't lead in the second half until there were 42 seconds left in the game.
"We didn't do a very good job executing our press offense and it led to some easy baskets for them," Sendek noted, "and certainly turned the momentum in the basketball game. What was a lead for us quickly evaporated."
One of the most glaring stats of the afternoon was the fact that ASU was called for 16 fouls compared to USC's eight, which led to 21 free throw attempts by USC compared to ASU's four – the first one coming at the 4:30 mark of the second half.
"We drove to the basket hard a number of times in the game," Sendek said. "We would have liked to get to the free throw line more. 21 free throws for them, four for us in a tremendous disparity that you have to try and make up for in other ways which is difficult to do."
Pendergraph paced ASU with 20 points and seven rebounds. Glasser had 16 and Abbott tallied 12 points. Harden had. The Sun Devils were 9-19 beyond the arc, but just 2-8 in the second half. USC's DeMar DeRozan, who was named the Pac-10 tournament most outstanding player, had 25 points for USC.
When the bitter taste of a close loss evaporates, ASU will wake up to a new day that offers an exciting opportunity for the team and its followers. On Sunday, shortly after 3 pm, the Sun Devils will hear their name called as part of the 65-team field of the NCAA tournament. Coming of the heels of a successful Pac-10 tournament performance, the Sun Devils are certainly not backing into March Madness.
"We have to recover and get some rest," Sendek said, "but we're excited about the NCAA tournament. We look forward to competing and we definitely feel good about that."
"Just to have an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament is a good feeling to have," said ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph. "But we know we still have a lot of work to do and when we get back coach will have all kinds of feedback for us to get us ready."