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Arizona State defeats Arizona

February 22, 2009

After blowing a 17-point second half lead, the Arizona State Sun Devils needed someone to bail them out.

Usually it's James Harden, a likely NBA lottery pick.

This time it was Rihards Kuksiks, who scored 17 points and hit a pair of late 3-pointers to lead the 14th-ranked Sun Devils to a 70-68 victory over Arizona on Sunday night.

"They left me open," said Kuksiks, a sophomore from Latvia who shoots 42.4 percent from beyond the arc. "I did what I've got to do."

Arizona State (21-5, 10-4 Pac-10) won its fifth straight and moved within a half-game of first-place Washington, which will host the Sun Devils on Thursday.

"You can't be closer than a half a game," said ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds and hit the decisive free throws with 25 seconds left for the Sun Devils. "It feels good to be at the top instead of the bottom. But it's not done yet. This wasn't our last game."

Nic Wise scored 17 points for Arizona (18-9, 8-6), which snapped a seven-game win streak.

After decades of Wildcat dominance, ASU-Arizona finally feels like a rivalry. Change came when Hall of Famer Lute Olson left the Wildcats and Herb Sendek, who turned 46 on Sunday, arrived in Tempe.

Olson went 43-6 against ASU, which went through seven coaches in that span. The Wildcats are 0-4 against their rivals since Olson took a personal leave of absence a year ago. He retired in October.

Sendek is 4-2 against the Wildcats since taking over at ASU three seasons ago.

The Sun Devils have beaten their longtime nemesis four straight times, their longest streak since they won nine straight from 1979-83. But Sendek downplayed suggestions that control has shifted from Tucson to Tempe.

"I find joy in the moment," Sendek said. "I'm exhilarated by what just happened. But I'm also realistic enough, I think, to realize that this game and the previous three could have easily gone the other way. We'd be sitting here - 'We haven't beat them for the last four, what's the matter, you stink.' It's that close."

This game couldn't have been much closer.

The Wildcats had rallied from a 54-37 deficit with 13:49 to play, taking a 62-60 lead on a 3-pointer by Jamelle Horne with 4:14 left - Horne's 10th 3-pointer of the season.

Unlike Horne, Kuksiks' role is to fire away from beyond the arc.

"If he's open, we want him to take the shot," Sendek said. "Usually we don't have to twist his arm to do that."

Kuksiks hit 5-of-10 from 3-point range, and none bigger than the two he hit down the stretch.

Arizona had taken a 64-62 lead on a pair of free throws by Wise with 3:20 left. That's when Kuksiks went to work.

First he nailed a 3-pointer with 2:50 to play, giving the Sun Devils a 65-64 lead.

Then, after Arizona took a one-point lead on a jumper by Arizona's Jordan Hill, Kuksiks connected again to put ASU up 68-66 with 1:16 to go.

"Those two shots he made at the end were lifesavers for us," Sendek said.

The final minute was chaotic.

Hill scored on a fallaway offensive rebound to tie it at 68-68 with 55 seconds left.

Pendergraph hit two free throws with 25 seconds left to give the Sun Devils a 70-68 lead. After Hill missed a shot from the lane, Arizona's Zane Johnson scooped up the offensive rebound but missed a wide-open gimme in the final seconds.

"I got fouled on that play," Hill said. "I got really pushed on that play."

The game still wasn't over. ASU's Derek Glasser missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 5 seconds left. The Wildcats rebounded and had time for a last shot, but they lost the ball in a scramble at center court.

"We're trying to get the ball in Nic's hands," Pennell said. "We just mishandled the ball. It's unfortunate."