After stunning Stanford, Arizona State eyes NCAA berth Print
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Saturday, 16 February 2008 00:25
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 TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -Arizona State lost a school-record 15 straight games last season and finished last in the Pac-10.
So when the Sun Devils opened the season with one of the nation's younger teams, it seemed ludicrous to suggest they might contend for an NCAA tournament berth this March.
It's not ludicrous any longer.
The Sun Devils (16-7, 6-5) have thrust themselves into NCAA consideration with back-to-back victories at Arizona and over No. 7 Stanford on Thursday night - a pair of results that helped soften the sting of a five-game losing streak.
``It puts us back in some people's (tourney) conversations, whatever that means,'' Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said.
One of those people is Internet RPI expert Jerry Palm, who runs the Web site. Reached at his Indiana home on Friday, Palm said he had inserted the Sun Devils into his updated mock bracket - for now.
``They're a tough team to call,'' Palm said.
the Sun Devils have victories over then-No. 17 Xavier and Stanford, as well as a sweep of Arizona.
``There aren't more than 10 teams out there with more quality wins,'' Palm said.
But Palm said Arizona State still has work to do down the stretch.
``Like a lot of teams in that part of the world, they are one bad week from falling out of the bracket - and they've shown they are capable of that kind of a week,'' Palm said.
That's why junior forward Jeff Pendergraph doesn't want his teammates to start looking ahead to March.
``We can't start worrying about, 'All right, so we beat (Stanford), we're going to the tournament,''' Pendergraph said. ``We've got to keep winning.''
If the Sun Devils keep playing like they did in the past week, they're almost certain to make their first NCAA appearance since 2003.
After losing five straight, the Sun Devils showed resilience in a pair of rousing wins.
The first came last Sunday in Tucson, against an Arizona team without point guard Nic Wise. The Sun Devils fell behind 22-6 before rallying behind Pendergraph's career-high 29 points for a 59-54 victory, which clinched Arizona State's first season sweep of the Wildcats since 1995.
Four days later, the Sun Devils appeared headed for a loss when the Cardinal blitzed them 26-2 midway through the second half. Trailing by 14 with 7:59 to go, Arizona State got back in the game by beating Stanford to rebounds and loose balls.
The Sun Devils still trailed by seven with 1:49 to play. Their improbable comeback began with a 3-pointer by little-used freshman Rihards Kuksiks, cutting Stanford's lead to 57-53 with 1:37 remaining.
Stanford missed 4 of 8 free throws in the final 1:49 to open the door for the Sun Devils. Freshman star James Harden kicked the door in, scoring the Sun Devils' last four points of overtime - including the game-tying bucket with 5 seconds to go - and their first eight in overtime.
Arizona State survived the overtime without Pendergraph, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out late in regulation. And they survived a night when Stanford's twin 7-footers, Brook and Robin Lopez, combined for 46 points.
``We're starting to figure out our identity thing, getting it done on defense,'' Pendergraph said. ``People are going to start noticing that - especially (against) Stanford. They're a really good team. That speaks volumes for the heart that we have, especially being so small and going against these giants.''
As rousing as the victory was, it might not mean much if the Sun Devils stumble down the stretch. Arizona State is 3-4 against its remaining schedule.
California is next up for the Sun Devils on Saturday afternoon in Wells Fargo Arena. Then Arizona State visits No. 21 Washington State and Washington, both of whom won in Tempe last month.
The Sun Devils play their final two regular-season home games against No. 6 UCLA on Feb. 28 and Southern California two days later. Arizona State finishes the regular season at Oregon and Oregon State.
Depending on how they fare, the Sun Devils might need a victory in the Pac-10 tournament to lock up an NCAA spot. The tourney tips off March 12 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
That's why Sendek hopes his players don't spend too much time trying to figure out where they fit in the ever-changing postseason picture.
``The truth of the matter is, we have so much basketball to be played,'' Sendek said. ``So many things can happen, not the least of which is the conference tournaments at the end. It's just not energy that would be well-invested for us right now.''

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