ASU women build success from last year’s lumps

ASU women's basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne saw her team take a disappointing end to 2014 and turn it into a successful run this season.

Robert Stanton/Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — A 60-36 thumping of Arizona last February gave the Arizona State women’s basketball team a 20-3 record to that point of the 2014 season, and the dominating win over an overmatched rival maybe signified another promising trajectory as March neared.

It wasn’t so.

ASU’s next game, also against the Wildcats, saw the Sun Devils fall 68-49, and by the end of a trip to the Bay Area to face top-25 squads Stanford and California, coach Charli Turner Thorne’s Sun Devils found themselves on a three-game skid. They would lose five of their final seven regular season contests, get knocked out of the Pac-12 Tournament in their first game and fall to No. 1 seed Notre Dame in their second NCAA Tournament game.

"I think it took a toll on us for the season," said senior Promise Amukamara on Friday, a day before the ASU women open the 2015 NCAA Tournament against the No. 14 seed Ohio Bobcats. "We didn’t want to be in that situation again. And so we worked hard in the off-season. People developed their skills, and I think we did a lot better this year."

This year, the Sun Devils earned the right to open tournament play in front of their home crowd at Wells Fargo Arena. ASU’s No. 3 seed is the highest in school history, matching that of the 2007 Elite Eight team.

All this success may be suprising because Arizona State is so young. Amukamara is the lone senior on the roster. The starting lineup, which has been uninterrupted for 27 of 32 games, includes sophomore Kelsey Moos and Sophie Brunner, who leads ASU with 11.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

Turner Thorne sees every team she’s had as unique, of course, but her 10th tournament team at ASU stands out as mature bunch, especially for its age. What makes her team special, she said, is its ability to put in the work without using a stifling culture that could make some college players tense, leading to a building pressure once the wins mounted.

The Sun Devils, like they did in 2014, got out to a hot start and found themselves 21-2 by the beginning of February. This time, however, ASU won six of its last seven, falling to ranked Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament.

Sophie Brunner leads a balanced Arizona State offense, averaging 11.7 points per game.

GREENSBORO REGIONAL

Wells Fargo Arena

Saturday

1 p.m. — Sixth-seeded Texas A&M (23-9) vs. No. 11 Arkansas Little-Rock (28-4), ESPN2

3:30 p.m. — Third-seeded Arizona State (27-5) vs. No. 14 Ohio (27-4), ESPN2

Monday

Saturday winners, time TBD

"They’re so serious, but yet they have fun," Turner Thorne said. "They make it fun for themselves, and yet they show up focused and ready to get the job done. I think their maturity and their ability to balance enjoying the process as well as the hard grind of preparation has been maybe the best of any team I’ve ever coached, and I think that’s truly exceptional for them."

And that makes it easier on Turner Thorne.

She admitted a day before the NCAA Tournament opener against Ohio that she wouldn’t have predicted a 27-5 team. Yet, there turned out to be few bumps in the road to get to this point.

"I think we just have kids with big hearts that just are really competitive and passionate, and I know you might think that every athlete has that, but they don’t," Turner Thorne said. "Anything we ask them to do, they do, and a lot of times they’ll come back and they’ll want to do more. And when a coach has to shut her kids down instead of saying, ‘Hey, don’t you want to do some more shooting?’ that’s a great problem, and I think that’s a little bit more along the lines of the character of this team."

Don’t make the mistake: Last year’s Sun Devils were talented — it was mostly the same team, after all — but Turner Thorne probably won’t see it as a disappointing season. Last year was essential to developing the culture of this year’s team.

"We didn’t need to get it back; it was here," Turner Thorne said. "Now life is a lot easier when you’ve got your culture, your winning culture, and you’ve got great relationships and you can just focus on basketball."

SCOUTING THE BOBCATS

Record: 27-4

Head coach: Bob Boldon

Leading scorer: Kiyanna Black (16.8 points per game)

What’s the skinny? Ohio is known as a three-point happy team and during the 2015 season attempted shots beyond the arc on 46 percent of its total attempts, or twice the rate of Arizona State’s three-point attempt frequency.

The Bobcats get those open threes by dribble-penetration, which is a concern for ASU.

"They’ve got great penetrators, and when you cut them off, they keep their dribble and they find their teammates," Turner Thorne said.

Defensively, Ohio isn’t shabby, either. Just peek at the percentages, and it’s easy to see the winning differential. The undersized Bobcats shoot 41 percent overall but held opponents to 34 percent shooting on the year. They hold opponents to 27 percent from three.

"They play from the inside out, so it’s more of that saggy-match, sagging, switching," Turner Thorne said. "They know they’re a little bit undersized, so they’re going to just double and triple-team our post and they’re going to work really hard to take away our paint touches, and if they beat us, they beat us from the outside."

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