Arizona State extended its recent domination of Arizona on Thursday, putting the Wildcats' long NCAA tournament streak in jeopardy.
ASU coach Herb Sendek doesn't believe there should be a cause for debate.
"Admittedly biased, but I think our league is as deep and as talented and as balanced as any in the country," Sendek said after the 23rd-ranked Sun Devils beat Arizona 68-56 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament. "Do I believe Arizona is one of the top 65 teams in the country? I would say yes. As competitors, we have great respect for them."
Pac-10 player of the year James Harden had 27 points and eight rebounds for the fourth-seeded Sun Devils (23-8), who won for just the second time in their last five games. Ty Abbott added 11 points and Jeff Pendergraph had 10 points and nine rebounds for ASU, which advanced to Friday night's semifinals against No. 13 Washington. The top-seeded Huskies beat ninth-seeded Stanford 85-73 in Thursday's second quarterfinal game.
"I think the biggest challenge for us right now will be recovery," said Sendek, who used only seven players against Arizona. ASU is playing without top reserve Jamelle McMillan, sidelined with a sore groin.
Jordan Hill had 20 points and 13 rebounds and Nic Wise added 18 points for fifth-seeded Arizona (19-13), which has appeared in 24 straight NCAA tournaments, the longest active streak and second-longest behind the 27-year streak by North Carolina from 1975-2001.
The Wildcats, losers of five of their last six games, will find out Sunday if their NCAA tournament streak is extended when the brackets are announced. Arizona sweated out the selections last year before drawing a 10th seed and losing to West Virginia in the first round.
"It's just out of our hands," said interim coach Russ Pennell, hired when Hall of Famer Lute Olson officially retired in October after sitting out last season on a personal leave of absence. "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?"
The Wildcats have beaten the likes of Kansas, Gonzaga and UCLA but went 9-9 in the Pac-10.
"Whatever happens on Sunday is whatever happens," said Wildcats star Chase Budinger, held to eight points on 3-for-15 shooting including 1-for-9 from 3-point range. "We're going to be practicing and watching film, just keep on playing the season. We're just going to try to get better as a team, forget about the past and look forward."
The win gave ASU a three-game sweep of Arizona this season and was its fifth straight over the Wildcats _ the Sun Devils' longest winning streak over their in-state rival since they won nine in a row from 1979-83.
"For me, it feels great, never losing to U of A in my career so far," said Harden, a 6-foot-5 sophomore. "They had the upside for most of the years, so it just feels great and it is special to be a part of that. They are a great team and a powerhouse, and we are working to make this team a powerhouse as well."
The Wildcats dominated the Sun Devils during Olson's 24 years as their coach, going 43-6 against ASU, which had seven coaches during that time. Olson attended this game and was warmly greeted by Arizona fans. He acknowledged the applause with a wave.
Sendek is 5-2 against the Wildcats since becoming the ASU coach before the 2006-07 season.
"In the second half, we couldn't get anything to fall, and I credit Arizona State's defense for that," Pennell said. "They do a nice job defensively. Basically, I call it a bend-but-don't-break. They just don't give you anything easy, you have to earn everything you get against ASU."
ASU shot 52.1 percent to Arizona's 35.5 percent, winning handily despite being outrebounded 36-30. There were only 14 turnovers in the game _ eight by the Wildcats.
Harden scored eight points during a 14-5 run to start the second half, giving the Sun Devils a 46-39 lead, and a 3-pointer by Rihards Kuksiks and a dunk by Harden made it 60-48 with 5:13 remaining. The Wildcats scored the next six points to draw within six, but ASU scored the game's final six points from the foul line.
ASU shot 7-of-9 to begin the game en route to an 18-11 lead. Abbott, averaging 6.3 points, had eight at that stage.
The Sun Devils then went cold, missing eight straight shots while being outscored 11-0 to fall behind 22-18. Neither team led by more than four points during the rest of the first half, which ended with the Wildcats on top 34-32.
Hill got off to a slow start, missing his first four shots, but the 6-foot-10 junior finished the half with 10 points and six rebounds, leading Arizona to a 17-10 advantage in that department.
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