James Harden is known for his ability to shoot and score, averaging 19.2 points per game in his career. But has only averaged 4.3 rebounds per contest during his time in the league. Physicality and will on the boards is exactly what helped ASU 14-12 (6-7) push past UCLA 16-11 (8-6) Wednesday night when the Sun Devils honored his jersey with the beard himself in the building.
The Sun Devils held on through nine second half lead changes and were able to make one last stand as sophomore Bruin guard Isaac Hamilton heaved a three from the right side of the three point arc at the buzzer that missed badly off the backboard.
"I thought one of the big keys tonight was the improvement in our defense in the second half," Sendek said. "I thought our guys had a number of really big stops and really competed on the defensive end of the floor."
Contrary to most games this season, the Sun Devils lacked three point shooting. ASU made just 5 of 17 from beyond the arc.
The prowess on the boards, with ASU grabbing 12 more rebounds than UCLA, made up for the poor shooting.
"We held the number one offensive rebounding team in our conference relatively in check on the glass which was a really big point in our game plan going in," head coach Herb Sendek said. "Our team becomes better when we have Savon and Eric on the floor together. If youre ultimately going to be a good team, you have to find a way to win different ways."
Both UCLA big men, junior Tony Parker and freshman Kevon Looney fouled out of the game. Savon Goodman, a minuscule 6-foot-6 compared to the 6-foot-9 Parker and 6-foot-10 Looney, finished with 20 points on 8 of 8 shooting and 12 rebounds. With Jacobsen on the bench with four fouls, Goodman had to step up in the second half.
"Looney and Tony Parker, they're big dudes," he said. "Our whole thing is we got to hit them before they hit us. We can't just go to the boards like in previous games and just out jump the ball because they're going to be right there jumping with us."
The effort down low allowed ASU to score 36 points in the paint, 14 more than the Bruins' 22 points inside and was enough to compensate for 15 Sun Devil turnovers.
A streaky start almost cost the Sun Devils too, going on a 6-0 run early in the first half, before giving up the next 10 points and finding themselves down 32-23 with just over four minutes left in the half. A 9-1 run over the next three minutes helped pull the maroon and gold to a more manageable 36-32 halftime deficit.
The back and forth of the second half was put to rest when Gerry Blakes made a layup with 5:12 remaining to give the Sun Devils a 58-57 lead they wouldn't give up.
Tra Holder provided another solid effort for a freshman guard with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists against a much bigger UCLA lineup. He caused the Bruins defense to collapse, at which point he kicked it out for a better shot. Senior leadership was also apparent in the form of Shaquielle McKissic who finished his night with 14 points.
ASU has now won three of its last four games over Arizona, Washington and now UCLA.
"Even before we had some of these kinds of results, you could see signs of improvement," Sendek said."I kept telling our guys, even before a result like tonight, 'We are getting better.'"
Harden, sitting court side provided some extra energy in the building. He walked out to a standing ovation pre game and dawned a maroon suit with a black shirt on underneath. The Houston Rockets guard sat court side opposite the ASU bench. At halftime, a video montage was shown to the crowd before Harden walked out to mid court, was presented with a framed jersey, and fawned over his mother and time at ASU in some remarks to the crowd.
Sendek, who coached Harden through his years at ASU, including a 5-0 record against Arizona, admitted he wasn't aware of Harden's full potential at the time.
"We all knew he was good, but if we're honest with each other, there is nobody who thought at this age he would be in the conversation for MVP of the NBA," he said. "What makes me feel so good inside is that he hasn't changed, he's the same guy he was here before all his successes."
Next up: ASU vs. USC Sunday night at Wells Fargo Arena with a 6:30 M.T. tip-off.