No. 8 Arizona State continues on upward trajectory

FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2016, file photo, Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne raises her arms as a three-pointer goes in for Arizona State against Stanford during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Tempe, Ariz. For the better part of two decades, Stanford dominated women's basketball in the Pac-12. Now, teams like Arizona State and Oregon State are catching up and building their own legacies. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
AP

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State won 13 games in Charli Turner Thorne's first season back after taking a year off. The Sun Devils reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament the second season and made it to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago.

This season, Arizona State has established itself as one of the nation's best teams, up to No. 8 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 and rolling on a 12-game winning streak as it heads into a pair of games against rival Arizona this weekend.

The trajectory of the program is what Turner Thorne had hoped for when she came back.

''Each year we've gotten better and progressed, which is as it should be in our minds,'' Turner Thorne said.

Arizona State came within seconds of reaching the Elite Eight last season, losing by one to Florida State after being unable to get off a last-second shot.

Despite expectations following them into this season, the Sun Devils didn't exactly get off to a stellar start, losing two of their first three games.

Arizona State had some late defensive breakdowns in an overtime loss to Kentucky in its season opener, then had several players suffer injuries in a two-point loss to then-No. 2 South Carolina in Hawaii. The Sun Devils followed with a disappointing loss to Virginia Commonwealth in their own tournament and lost two of their best players, Sophie Brunner and Kelsey Moos, to injuries.

Instead of backpedaling from the adversity, the Sun Devils (15-3, 6-0 Pac-12) surged forward and met it head on. New players stepped into bigger roles with Brunner and Moos out, and the team played much better as a whole when the two post players returned.

''You never say it's a blessing when they got hurt, but it really gave other people a chance to emerge,'' Turner Thorne said. ''They really stepped up in every way, offensively and defensively.''

The defense has been the heart of Arizona State's rise.

The Sun Devils may have had a few letdowns early in the season, but they used those at motivation to become one of the nation's best lockdown teams. Arizona State is 10th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 51.9 points per game, and is 18th in defending the 3, holding teams to 25.9 percent from the arc.

The Sun Devils opened the new year with a dominating performance, holding Stanford to its lowest point total in program history in a 49-31 win. Arizona State beat Stanford two of three times last season, but to shut down one of college basketball's premier programs certainly sent a message.

''After we lost a game we shouldn't have lost in our tournament and we still didn't have Kelsey and Sophie back, that was a time when we really found ourselves,'' Turner Thorne said. ''It was like, listen, we're not playing hard enough, we're not being all we can be.''

Offensively, the Sun Devils' wealth of shooters make them tough to defend.

There were times the past few seasons when the Sun Devils didn't have the shooters to keep teams honest, allowing them to collapse in the paint on the post players.

That isn't a problem this season.

Just about everyone on Arizona State's roster can shoot and the Sun Devils are balanced so they don't have to rely on one or two players to score. Brunner leads the team with 10.7 points per game, Quinn Dornstauder averages 10.6 and Arizona State seems to have a different leading scorer every game.

''When you talk to opposing coaches, that's one of the biggest things about guarding us,'' Turner Thorne said of having so many shooters. ''It's not just that we have five starters that can all score because I think everybody in the Pac-12 has that. We can go eight, maybe nine deep where some of the people we bring in may actually be better scorers than the people who were in before.''