Editor’s Note: Throughout the offseason Sun Devil head women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne will be providing updates and other notes of interest on the Sun Devil women’s basketball program.
Summer fun is in full swing and we are relishing the opportunity to grow our relationships as well as our challenges! While our two hours in the gym each week goes entirely too fast, it is fun to see the returners mature and just to get to begin to develop the newbies.
In my last blog I mentioned what I thought were the key factors to the quick turnaround we had last season as we went from a team that was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 to being in contention for a runner-up finish going into the last weekend of the regular season. Most programs would be satisfied with that kind of success given what was predicted. And please, don’t get me wrong, as a staff we were delighted with how quickly the team gelled and embraced the values that have made us one of the country’s most successful programs over the last 15 years.
However as anyone who is involved in athletics will tell you – anyone who is a competitor – you always want to challenge yourself and push for more. We were in that position when we found ourselves ranked No. 11 in the country the first week in February and had already reached 20 wins. We were in the thick of the race for the Pac-12 regular season crown and were in position to press for a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament. And then we hit a slump.
Just like different factors come together in success, the same is true for when things don’t go right. As my staff and I evaluated the second half of the conference season, we attributed our dip to a confluence of things, which individually could be easily overcome, but collectively proved to be a difficult challenge.
First, we were a young team. We did not quite understand the sense of urgency required every minute of every game in the months of February and March. Second, ‘hitting the wall:’ Every team goes through a couple of weeks in its season where it has a ‘lull’ and unfortunately we had ours down the stretch. Third, we had a couple starters with nagging injuries that did not allow them to perform at the high level they were accustomed to.
Why do I address this? Because I want our fans – and those around the country who follow women’s college basketball – to know that the Sun Devil team they saw the first three-plus months of the season was the real deal. Although we were disappointed to come up short against USC in our opening Pac-12 Tournament game, in a way (again, don’t get me wrong, we ALWAYS want to win) it turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. The extra time allowed us to get healthy and also enabled us regain our identity in terms of who we were and what got us to the point when we were ranked No. 11 and in the ‘discussion’ of teams that could make a run in March. And for anyone who thought the loss to USC was a blemish, just ask the next two teams they upended – Stanford and Oregon State – about how good USC was.
Back to our situation. Even though I had no doubt we’d get into the NCAA Tournament, there were a few anxious moments for some in the room who gathered with us to watch the NCAA Selection Show. It came down to the final pairings before ‘ARIZONA STATE’ appeared on the screen. We were given a No. 9 seed and found out we’d be traveling to Toledo, Ohio, to take on No. 8 Vanderbilt. The winner would likely play Notre Dame – one of two teams that entered the tournament unbeaten.
We proved that not only were we capable of defeating a very good Vanderbilt team, but also that we had what it took to go toe-to-toe with one of the two best teams in the country. We gave the Fighting Irish, who were playing about two hours away from South Bend, Indiana, arguably their toughest game of the season until they fell to UConn in the final. I couldn’t have been more proud of our team!
Disappointments? At the time, and even as I reflect at this point, I think our conference as a whole was not given the respect it deserved. Three of the five teams from our conference that qualified would have had to defeat a No. 1 seed to get past the second round and another would have needed to knock off a No. 2 seed on that team’s home floor to advance to the Sweet 16. For us, I think a game against a team the caliber of Notre Dame would have been more fitting in the Sweet 16 (at least when, relatively speaking, compared to playing them in the second round). I won’t go into that in full detail right now (that might be a few more blogs in itself).
As for looking ahead, this time of the year is when I’m in my ‘comfort zone:’ Planning, creating the vision and laying out the necessary steps to building on last year’s successes. As always, our team is working hard to strengthen its skill set, its mindset, and our ‘Help the Helper’ culture. Please stay tuned for more insight on our H2H Culture.
Thanks for reading and hope all of you are enjoying your summer!