Saturday March 21st, 2009

MIAMI - About the only thing that passed for drama Thursday at American Airlines Arena was the quote Temple guard Dionte Christmas gave a reporter from Tucson's Arizona Daily Star. Asked how the Owls might defend Arizona State and touted NBA draft prospect James Harden, Christmas called the Sun Devils' offense "80 percent" Harden.

With 5:06 remaining in Friday's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup, Harden, the Pac-10 player of the year, had two points. So, using Christmas' math, Temple should have held a double-digit lead. Instead, thanks to guard Derek Glasser and forward Jeff Pendergraph, Arizona State led by three.

At that moment, Christmas airballed an attempt to tie, lighting the fuse on a 100-second flurry in which Harden scored seven consecutive points to seal a 66-57 win (RECAP | BOX). Harden had come through at the end, but the 20-percenters had carried the Sun Devils. Check that. Glasser corrected the math again. "Jeff's probably 18 percent," Glasser said. "So for us two-percenters ..."

Pendergraph, the senior who swallowed his pride and gave up his shots when Harden arrived in 2007, will stay the entire first weekend of his lone career NCAA tournament. If Harden finds his touch before Sunday's second-rounder against No. 3 seed Syracuse and the rest of the sixth-seeded Sun Devils reprise Friday's magic, Arizona State, which went 19-39 in Pendergraph's first two seasons, could enjoy 100 percent of the Sweet 16.

Some of the Sun Devils were aware of the Christmas quote prior to tip-off. Pendergraph said he wasn't, but he said he saw the disrespect immediately when he looked up from the post and saw the Owls guarding Glasser "like ... some bum."

"It seems sometimes teams don't respect Derek as a player, like he can't shoot the ball or anything," Pendergraph said. "I don't know how many times he's gotten a three coming off a pick-and-roll right at the top of the key. That's the easiest shot to make. It's like a driveway shot for him. So that's fine. Let him keep shooting."

Glasser, the son of premium jeans magnate Michael Glasser, scored a career-high 22. Inside, Pendergraph, the NCAA's field-goal percentage leader, abused the Owls for 22. Harden, who missed his first seven shots, seemed content to float to the corner and wait for a pair of defenders to follow. Meanwhile, the rest of the Sun Devils played four-on-three.

As Harden struggled, Christmas thrived. He scored 29 points, often turning a centimeter of space into enough room to create a shot. Christmas drilled a three with 7:34 remaining to cut Arizona State's lead to 52-47. On the Owls' next possession, Christmas put back a Semaj Inge miss to cut the lead to three.

Then Christmas threw up the airball, and a switch flipped in Harden. On the ensuing Arizona State possession, he drew a foul on Ryan Brooks and hit one of two free throws. On the Sun Devils' next possession, Harden hit a three from the top of the key -- his only field goal of the day. After a Brooks dunk, Harden added three more free throws. Suddenly, Arizona State led by seven. On the sideline, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek marveled at Harden's ability to shake his funk at the most critical moment.

"When it's not your day, when things are going south, to somehow be able to reset that during the game, in crunch time, down the home stretch, and step up the way he did, is not easy," Sendek said. "It's much more likely that the guy resets for the next game and gets back in sync. It's been my experience that it takes an extraordinary quality to apply that in the moment."

As Harden struggled, Sendek had tread a fine line between leaving his star to wallow in his misery and trying to force him back into the flow. "I want him to know I have all the confidence in the world in him," Sendek said. "You saw us put the ball in his hands the last four minutes. But at the same time, I don't want him to feel like he has to be Atlas and carry the globe around. That's not fair to anybody."

In truth, Harden has been more like Prometheus. He gave fire to the Sun Devils, and they learned how to utilize it. "It was one of those games where shots weren't falling," Harden said. "It was just hard to get into the groove of the game. But give credit to my teammates. They picked it up. That's why we're playing on Sunday."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.