Trojans rise above the fray

Times Staff Writer

Arizona State freshman James Harden went in for a layup, the ball bounced off the rim and a season hung in the balance.

That’s when Sun Devils junior Jeff Pendergraph corralled the ball high in the air for a dunk that would have tied the score with 16 seconds remaining in the second half against USC on Thursday afternoon at Staples Center.

But the celebratory cheers of Arizona State fans quickly turned to boos when an official waved off the basket and called Pendergraph for a foul that allowed the fourth-seeded Trojans to hold on for a 59-55 victory over the fifth-seeded Sun Devils in a Pacific 10 Conference tournament quarterfinal.

“I didn’t feel any contact at all,” said Pendergraph, who fouled out on a play in which he was ruled to have come over the back of USC’s Davon Jefferson. “I thought I just jumped over everybody and dunked the ball. . . . It felt like a bad sports movie.”


Jefferson made both of the resulting free throws to set the final score and allow the Trojans (21-10) to advance to a semifinal this evening against top-seeded UCLA.

Jefferson refused to comment to The Times when a reporter approached the freshman forward to ask about the pivotal play.

Asked about the call, USC Coach Tim Floyd said he saw Pendergraph “dunk it and I didn’t like that. I’m sure if I was sitting on the other bench I wouldn’t have liked it. From my bench I liked it.”

It was the second consecutive game between the Trojans and Sun Devils in which officiating became a contentious issue. Floyd lodged a complaint with the Pac-10 earlier this month after an 80-66 Arizona State victory in Tempe, Ariz., during which USC was called for 29 fouls to the Sun Devils’ 14.

Officials called the teams for 14 fouls apiece Thursday -- until the last one on Pendergraph, which could cost Arizona State (19-12) an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

The Sun Devils finished in a tie for fifth in the Pac-10 standings but went 5-5 over their last 10 games and own only one marquee nonconference victory, a December triumph over nationally ranked Xavier.

“Our team had a very good run, and hopefully the quality of the Pac-10 Conference will be recognized and rewarded,” Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek said.

The Sun Devils weren’t particularly good over the game’s final 9:35, when they went without a field goal after sophomore Derek Glasser’s jumper had given them a 49-42 lead.

Though Harden scored a team-high 16 points, he scored only two points over the final 17:39 while being hounded by USC sophomore Daniel Hackett.

“I tried my best to limit and crowd him and get him frustrated,” Hackett said.

Floyd had initially wanted freshman O.J. Mayo to guard Harden but had to change his plan after Mayo picked up an early foul.

“He picked up that quick foul 40 seconds into the game and we didn’t feel comfortable from that point on of him not being on the floor offensively for our team,” Floyd said.

Mayo, who finished with a game-high 23 points, eventually pulled USC into a 51-51 tie on a jumper.

The Trojans went ahead for good when Jefferson chased down a rebound in the corner, drove the baseline and made a shot while drawing a foul underneath the basket. He converted the free throw to put USC up, 56-53, with 5:11 remaining.

Still, the Sun Devils had a chance trailing by two points in the final minute when USC sophomore Dwight Lewis lost the ball on a drive to the basket, setting off the wild final sequence that started with Harden’s missed layup and the contested call on Pendergraph.

“Honestly, it was a tough call,” Hackett said. “I don’t know if you can call that down the stretch even though he jumped on [Jefferson’s] back.”

Said Floyd: “I don’t believe there was a tournament decision based on that call. I think they’re in the NCAA tournament anyway. That’s an NCAA tournament team.”