A key for Huskies in Sun Devils showdown: Slow down Harden
• ASU at UW, 8 p.m., FSN
The most important player in the Washington Huskies’ most important game in years might be … Darnell Gant?
Although the redshirt freshman ranks eighth on the team in points and sixth in minutes played, he was as instrumental as anyone in UW’s win at Arizona State last month.
Gant led a rotation of Huskies whose primary responsibility was guarding ASU sophomore guard James Harden, the Pacific-10 Conference scoring leader with an average of 21.2 points per game.
Gant and company combined to hold Harden in check in an 84-71 UW victory.
However, that wording makes UW coach Lorenzo Romar uncomfortable as the No. 14 Sun Devils and No. 21 Huskies prepare for their rematch tonight at Hec Edmundson Pavilion
“Don’t say that any more that we did a good job on him, please,” Romar told a questioner, apparently joking. “He’s a man with a lot of pride. It’s better you say that he could have done whatever he wanted that night, he just decided not to. It was his choice. It had nothing to do with us.”
Actually, that’s pretty close to what Harden himself said after his team lost on its home floor to the Huskies.
Washington decided against checking the 6-foot-5 Harden with its own undersized guards. Instead, UW bothered him with size: sometimes the 6-6 Justin Holiday and sometimes the 6-6 Quincy Pondexter, but primarily the 6-8 Gant.
Harden scored 15 points – six under his average and five under what has proven to be a crucial dividing line for the Sun Devils: When Harden scores 20 points or more, ASU is 11-3 this season and 24-6 over his career.
Afterward, Harden said the UW defense had little to do with his point total, which he attributed to missing open shots and trying to involve his teammates.
“I think (it’s hard for him to credit the defense) because of the ego thing,” Gant said. “But to him that’s probably what it was. On our side, we might think it’s a little bit different. But we’ll just be ready to play. He’s a great player. … He’s going to be ready. Any type of scorer – if like the last time we held him to 15 points, and he’s averaging over 20 in conference play – he’s most definitely going to be holding a grudge, and he’s going to be ready to get some unfinished business done.”
ASU coach Herb Sendek was more willing to credit the UW defense. But he also noted that virtually every defense the Sun Devils face is stacked to limit Harden.
“I think Washington did a good job,” Sendek said Tuesday. “(But) most everybody tries to do something to defend him and take away something that he tries to do. And we’re always trying to jockey for position to try to put our players in the best position to be successful.”
Washington enters the rematch with a half-game lead over the Sun Devils. An Arizona State victory would reverse that, while a win by the Huskies would keep UW no less than a game ahead of UCLA and California and would push ASU 11/2 games off the pace with just two UW conference games to go – both at home.
The players are aware of the stakes.
“I know in terms of league play it’s probably the biggest game I’ve had since I’ve been a Husky,” senior Jon Brockman said. “… It makes it real exciting. I know what the environment is going to be like: It’s going to be wild and crazy. They’re coming in with a lot of energy, a lot of focus and really I’m sure Arizona State is thinking they deserve to be in first place.”
If Romar decides to stick with his previous defensive plan, one big responsibility in this game will fall to Gant.
“If it (does),” Grant said, “I’ll just have to get my mind right once again to guard one of the best players in the Pac-10.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808
UW MEN’S GAMEDAY
NO. 14 ARIZONA STATE (21-5 overall, 10-4 PAC-10) AT NO. 21 WASHINGTON (20-7, 11-4)
8 p.m., Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Arizona State leads 34-32 overall. UW leads 17-14 at home. The teams split two meetings last season, each winning on the road. The Huskies won the earlier meeting this season, 84-71, at Tempe, Ariz.
For ASU, G James Harden, 21.2 ppg; F Jeff Pendergraph, 8.2 rpg; G Derek Glasser, 4.8 apg. For UW, G Isaiah Thomas, 15.9 ppg and 2.7 apg; F Jon Brockman, 11.3 rpg.
The Sun Devils are on a five-game conference winning streak, their longest since 1994-95. They also have won four straight Pac-10 road games, most since 1980-81. … UW leads the league in scoring and rebounding. ASU leads in 3-point field goals made, 3-point field goal defense, assists and assist/turnover ratio. … Individually, Harden leads the Pac-10 and is 16th nationally in scoring. Pendergraph leads the nation in field goal percentage (66.8). Rihards Kuksiks is fourth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage (47.6). Brockman leads the Pac-10 in rebounding. Senior guard Justin Dentmon has moved to within a tenth of a point of Thomas for the UW scoring lead. UW junior forward Quincy Pondexter has scored in double figures in six straight games. Over that span, he is averaging 17.7 points, shooting 60.6 percent and averaging 6.2 rebounds. He needs nine points to reach the 1,000-point career mark. … The Sun Devils are 2-1 this season against ranked teams – the two wins coming against UCLA and the loss to Washington. … The game is a sellout.
Noon Saturday vs. Arizona, Hec Edmundson Pavilion; FSN.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune