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January 28, 2011

Trojans hold on to beat Sun Devils

From the black shirts and glow sticks in the student section to the "bench warmer" program designed to help fill lower bowl seating, there were some new wrinkles in the mix at Wells Fargo Arena Thursday night.

There were also some old standby themes as well, just not the ones Arizona State fans wanted to see.

Poor free throw shooting, interior defensive lapses and rebounding liabilities plagued the Sun Devils much as they have all season in a narrow 63-61 loss to USC in front of 7,638 fans, which dropped ASU to 9-11 overall and 1-7 in Pac-10 play.

The Trojans, 12-9, 4-4 in the conference, were able to avoid two field goal attempts by Ty Abbott in the game's final moments that would have forced overtime or ended it with a Sun Devil victory.

After Garrett Jackson made 1 of 2 free throws with 16 seconds remaining in regulation, coach Herb Sendek elected to save his final timeout and the Sun Devils had a disjointed possession resulting in Abbott taking what appeared to be a long 2-point attempt with his foot on the 3-point line and two seconds on the clock.

The ball caromed off the rim and out of bounds to ASU with 0.5 seconds put on the clock after an official's conference.

At that point Sendek used his final timeout to draw up a play.

From the sideline, senior Jamelle McMillan appeared to have sophomore Carrick Felix for a backdoor lob toward the hoop -- one of the options included in the play by Sendek -- but McMillan threw it to Abbott coming toward him at a 45 degree angle parallel to the 3-point and Abbott got up a difficult shot falling away from the hoop that barely drew iron.

"I caught it clean, pretty tough shot, that's something you kind of play around with doing at the end of practice or something, I just kind of tried to give it my best," Abbott said.

Senior Rihards Kuksiks got hot shooting the ball late, hitting three 3-pointers between the 5:26 and 3:06 mark of the second half to keep ASU within a field goal in each instance, but the Trojans adjusted well and forced the Sun Devils into some bad possessions down the stretch.

"Arizona State is very difficult to play," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said. "Kuksiks made big shots but our team kept playing through some things and kept fighting hard even after a lousy start to the game when we didn't play well at all, we fought very hard and gave ourselves a chance to win. We feel very fortunate to get a road win."

The Sun Devils jumped out to an 11-point lead early before seeing USC respond with a 12-4 run, eventually cutting the deficit to two points at halftime, 31-29.

In the second half the Trojans used strong interior play from Nikola Vucevic to help build an 8-point lead, 53-46 with 6:53 remaining in regulation before Kuksiks' efforts helped bring the Sun Devils back into contention through the game's final buzzer.

Vucevic finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds, as the Sun Devils' improved help defense on the interior in the first half eventually regressed to what's been a common problem this season.

The Sun Devils also stayed true to their last place ranking in free throw shooting in the Pac-10, making just 12-of-25 attempts, including two in a row by Abbott at the 8:24 mark of the second half, as ASU was working to stay close.

"I was once asked (about free throws) in another year when our team wasn't making free throws," Sendek said. "Someone even asked me if we practiced them. I would just take this opportunity to let you know that we do practice them. Our guys have goals they have to make every day. And we most certainly consider it an important part of the game. I believe one of my teams led the nation in free-throw shooting one year. I guess we practiced them better that year."

After saying he had a good week of practice, Kuksiks led the Sun Devils with 22 points, while Abbott had 19 and sophomore Trent Lockett 13 in the loss, ASU's sixth straight in the Pac-10 and fourth consecutive overall.

"It's a painful voyage right now," Sendek said. "I think we all share it. We all feel it. But we're going to kind of go through it together. We're not going to run from it."


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