March 26, 2008

ASU program takes big step despite loss to Gators

Wells Fargo Arena was rocking on Tuesday night.

The game was airing on ESPN, but that didn't stop 12,000 Maroon and Gold supporters from coming out full-force to catch their Sun Devils' quarterfinal matchup of the NIT against the University of Florida.

For the first 30 minutes of play those in attendance witnessed what could easily have been a no. 8 seed vs. no. 9 seed matchup in the NCAA tournament.

Both teams played at a high level for most of the game until the last eleven minutes of action.

The Gators went on a 22-7 run during that stretch and defeated the Sun Devils 70-57 to advance to the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden.

Not fazed by the noisy road atmosphere, Florida (24-11) played stellar perimeter defense, shot a blistering 60 percent from the field and had five players with double figure point totals in a performance that left ASU coach Herb Sendek thoroughly impressed.

"I thought Florida did a masterful job of changing defenses and keeping us off balance," he said. "I don't think we ever really achieved any offensive rhythm tonight."

The Sun Devils (21-13) were outscored 17-3 to start the game, had both of their star players, junior forward Jeff Pendergraph and freshman guard James Harden, on the bench in foul trouble and only made one field goal in the last eleven minutes of play.

While ASU struggled to find consistency on offense, the Gators had no trouble making open shots against the Sun Devil zone defense, shooting 48 percent from beyond the three point line.

"The difference in the game was our ability to shoot the ball better than them," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "They had some pretty good looks that they did knock down and we had the same looks and knocked them down."

Taking and making the most 3-pointers in the game was Florida guard Walter Hodge, who led the Gators with 18 points on four-of-eight shooting from three point range.

As a team Florida made 12-of-25 from long range, mostly because of their unselfish play and willingness to make the extra pass.
"They were very quick off the dribble and did and excellent job of moving the ball," Sendek said.

All but three of the Gators' 26 made field goals were set up with an assist. Florida freshman Nick Calathes led all players with nine assists to go along with his 11 points and six rebounds.

Calathes, Florida's leading scorer on the season, only attempted eight shots but had no problem finding open teammates, especially freshman swingman Chandler Parsons.

Parsons, who seriously considered ASU before signing with the Gators, came off the bench to score 13 of his 15 points in the second half alone.

For the Sun Devils, only Harden and Pendergraph made more than two field goals, scoring 18 and 14 points respectively.
They each battled foul trouble at different stretches in the game.

Pendergraph was whistled for two fouls within a ten second period in the first half and was forced to take a seat on the bench. Without ASU's starting center on the floor, the Gators jumped out to a 17-3 lead.

But the Sun Devils battled back with their own 14-6 run and trailed Florida 35-29 at the half, despite having Pendergraph on the court for only eleven minutes.

In the second half it was Harden's turn to be hassled by the officials.

With the ball in hand, and a 48-47 Florida lead on the scoreboard, Harden drove to the basket and converted what looked like another one of his impressive and-one buckets.

Instead he was called for an offensive foul and a potential three point-play was wiped away.

To make matters worse for ASU, two minutes later Harden appeared to have cleanly blocked Florida's Marreese Speights under the basket but was whistled for a foul.
The crowd at Wells Fargo Arena was not pleased, with the home faithful showered the referees with boos during the following television timeouts.

"I thought that was a really big play in the game," Sendek admitted.

Without their main offensive weapon for the next three minutes, the Sun Devils struggled to match the hot-shooting Gators.
And when Harden came back on the floor, ASU could still not convert open three-point attempts.

Despite the poor shooting at the end of the game, which allowed Florida to balloon its lead to 13, the ASU faithful mostly remained in their seats and gave the Sun Devils a standing ovation after the game concluded to show appreciation for the remarkable season they had.

"I wanted to win even more tonight for our fans," coach Sendek said. "I thought they were incredible."

Returning the favor, the players gave love right back to their supporters.

"It was loud the whole time," Pendergraph said. "I bet half of the crowd can't talk right now because their voices are gone - that's what we need."

With the season over, Pendergraph and Harden were both were asked about their intentions on returning to Tempe for another season.

"I think now would be a good time to start workouts, try and get to some of the draft camps and get some experience playing against the guys who are about to go," Pendergraph said. "If it works out - it works out. If not, I have no problem coming back."

Without a moment of hesitation Harden followed Pendergraph's statement with his own translation.

"In other words, he'll be back," Harden said.

And that's good news to Sun Devil fans, who Donovan says, "have a lot to be excited about."

Considering ASU improved by 13 games in the win column and beat two teams playing in the Sweet-16, there's certainly a lot to be proud of.

"We accomplished a lot," Pendergraph said looking back at the entire season. "We went from supposed to be in ninth place in the Pac [10] to finishing fifth. We did a lot of things people didn't expect us to do.
"And it's just going to carry over."

Sun Devil fans - get your season tickets ASAP.

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