James Harden and Arizona State continued their season-long dominance of their archrival with a win in their first Pac-10 tournament game.
To advance again, the Sun Devils will likely need to finally find some answers for Washington guard Justin Dentmon.
The 13th-ranked Huskies look to ride Dentmon to their third win over Harden and the 23rd-ranked Sun Devils when the teams square off in a semifinal matchup Friday night at Staples Center.
Arizona State (23-8) outscored Arizona 36-22 in the second half to pull out a 68-56 victory Thursday, completing a three-game sweep of its instate rival - the first time since 1979-80 the Sun Devils have beaten the Wildcats three times in one season.
Arizona State hasn’t had as much success against top-seeded Washington. The Huskies (25-7) won both regular-season meetings, thanks in large part to Dentmon.
The senior guard scored a career-high 30 points with four 3-pointers in an 84-71 win Jan. 31 in Tempe. Though he struggled for most of the rematch and committed a costly turnover late in regulation that allowed the Sun Devils to force overtime, Dentmon scored six of his 16 points in overtime to lead the Huskies to a 73-70 home victory Feb. 26.
Though his team pulled out both wins behind Dentmon, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar isn’t taking the third meeting lightly.
“Another tough opponent,” Romar said. “Arizona State just plays us to the wire. We’re going to have to do a great job of turning the page. This group has been fantastic in keeping the focus.”
Indeed, the Huskies have won six straight, including an 85-73 victory over Stanford to start the tournament Thursday. Jon Brockman had 20 points and eight rebounds and Isaiah Thomas added 14 points and a season-high nine boards as Washington began what it hopes will be a long postseason run after winning its first outright Pac-10 regular-season title since 1953.
Arizona State, the fourth seed in this tournament after dropping three of its last four regular-season games, seemed determined to put that late slump behind it in Thursday’s opener. Harden, the Pac-10 player of the year, had 27 points and eight rebounds. The sophomore guard was 9-for-17 from the field as the Sun Devils shot 52.1 percent as a team.
As strong as his team looked in that game, Arizona State coach Herb Sendek knows it could be tough to regroup so quickly for a meeting with Washington. Sendek used only seven players against Arizona, and the Sun Devils are still playing without top reserve Jamelle McMillan, sidelined by a sore groin.
“I think the biggest challenge for us right now will be recovery,” Sendek said.
The Huskies’ defense might be a close second. Harden, who led the conference with 20.8 points while shooting 50.4 percent from the field in the regular season, was held to 17.0 points and 39.3 percent shooting (11-for-28) in his two meetings with Washington.
Senior forward Jeff Pendergraph, a fellow all-conference first teamer, helped make up for Harden’s struggles, averaging 22.5 points and 14.0 rebounds while shooting 69.0 percent (20-for-29) against the Huskies.
The winner of this contest will face either No. 15 UCLA or USC in Saturday’s final.