Father Time and the Florida Gators finally popped Tempe’s basketball balloon. All the sideshows — Arizona State coach Herb Sendek vs. former pupil and close friend Florida coach Billy Donovan, freshman phenom James Harden vs. freshman phenom Nick Calathes — became moot points Tuesday night.
For the Sun Devils, so, too, did New York City. A spirited season ended with ASU’s 70-57 loss to the Gators in the National Invitational Tournament quarterfinals.
The Gators will play UMass at Madison Square Garden next week in the semifinals.
The Sun Devils will play again in November, a realization met with glum faces from a team which — in a season pundits considered shockingly successful — wanted more.
To that end, faces were glum, but voices were hopeful, aware the roster is expected to be largely unchanged.
“We did a lot people didn’t expect us to do,” junior forward Jeff Pendergraph said, noting the team’s supposed ninth-place expectancy in preseason. “It’s going to carry over next season.”
By the players’ accounts, nothing needed to be said amongst one another in the locker room. They played and watched while a stirring comeback fizzled away in the final five minutes, so why rehash it?
“We knew each other’s pain,” Pendergraph said.
Unable to control Florida’s quickness and balance, the Sun Devils (21-13) once trailed by 13 points, only to take a pair of brief leads in the second half.
They’d done this before, but the equally-young Gators (24-11) went on a 12-2 run to quiet Wells Fargo Arena’s version of March Madness.
Too much quickness (16 combined assists from the Gators starting backcourt). Too many shooters (12 of 25 from behind the arc). Too much energy from an earlier comeback already drained from the Sun Devils’ tank.
Calathes proved to be one of five Devil daggers. The freshman had 11 points, nine assists and six rebounds as five Gators scored in double figures.
ASU had Harden (18 points, six rebounds), but Pendergraph was in early foul trouble, and Harden picked up his third and fourth fouls, calls the Sun Devil side was less-than-sympathetic about, and the Sun Devils struggled to score thereafter.
“Really, really, really big plays,” Sendek said.
A few players took one more lap of handshakes around the arena floor, while many from the announced crowd of 12,000 stuck around for one final ovation.
“I think people around here have a lot to be excited about with Herb and his team,” said Donovan, who loathed having to face his friend for the first time in 20 years of coaching.
The 13-game improvement (six in Pac-10 play) wasn’t lost on the part of the Sun Devils, especially the veterans, who suffered through a coaching change and 15-game losing streak last season.
Two years ago, for example: “It wasn’t like there was a game in town,” Pendergraph said.
There is now, and while Sendek brushed off the idea of surprises, preseason comparisons or expectations, don’t expect the Sun Devils to go unnoticed again.
“It was fun and long,” Harden said of his first (but not last) college basketball season. “Overall, I think we did pretty well.”