TEMPE — James Harden was told to win the game. The ASU guard had just crossed over Jawann McClellan, jetting to his right and blowing past him like, a breezy, white, gold and maroon blur to tie the score on a layup.
Now the Sun Devils had a timeout — and the ball — with the score tied at the end of the second half.
Harden held the ball in his hands at the top of the key like an executioner. He drove down the lane, crossed over McClellan again, stepped beyond the 3-point arc.
“Wide-open shot,” Harden said.
No matter. The Pac-10’s Player of the Week just needed an extra five minutes to shove a dagger into the Wildcats — and maybe, single-handedly, revive the UA-ASU series, one shot at a time.
Harden scored a game-high 26 points in 44 minutes Wednesday night. That’s after he had had as many points as turnovers in the first half — four — on 1-of-6 shooting.
“The one thing that’s great about James is, he listens, he’s coachable,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said. “If you share something with him, he tries to take it in and use it to his advantage. I love that quality that he has.”
In the second half and overtime combined, he made 7 of 11 shots, shocking Sendek with his turnaround.
“Think about, sometimes, how hard that is to do,” Sendek said. “Many times the next day, you talk someone through it.
“He’s able to do that on a dime like that. That just shows you a lot about his character.”
For 25 minutes straight — the second half and overtime — every important play was called for Harden.
Everyone else, seemingly, was background.
“My teammates did a great job, getting me the ball, setting screens, doing everything to get me open shots,” Harden said. “So all the thanks should go to them for getting me good shots.”
McClellan and Daniel Dillon slowed the freshman in the first half, when Harden seemed timid. Harden and forward Jeff Pendergraph, who had combined for only six points, spoke with each other at halftime.
“I’m not playing as well as I am, he’s not playing as well as he is,” Pendergraph said. “We are the main people right now, and we’re only down by five.”
Harden charged out of the locker room to score 11 of the Sun Devils’ first 17 points of the second half.
“He was able to get those shooting rolls,” UA forward Chase Budinger said, “when he just lobbed it in.”
Harden’s shots would hit the front of the rim and, inevitably, bound around just long enough to give the UA players hope. Then it would fall in.
“I was just trying to get it up on the basket,” Harden said.
On the rare chance he missed, Pendergraph — freed up by the attention paid Harden — pounced on the rebound for a put-back basket.
“They started sitting on James,” he said.
Harden scored the first five points of overtime. When he finally did miss — with ASU up 1 with 13 seconds to go — Pendergraph laid the ball back in as the Wells Fargo Arena crowd almost exploded.
Fans rushed the court seconds later, celebrating their newfound rivalry.
“If I leave here, I can at least say I got them once,” Pendergraph said.
Harden, meanwhile, will likely get them a few more times.