ASU, UA women still playing hoops, but at different events

The expectations for post-season play are a good indicator of the disparity that still exists between the women’s basketball programs at Arizona State and the University of Arizona.

ASU, which got their 20 wins following the conference tournament, wasn’t even going to think about playing in the women’s NIT Tournament.  For them, it was the NCAA Tournament or bust.

But Arizona, which finished with 20 wins for the first time in years, actually appeared appreciative of being able to continue into the post-season, even if the only invitation it got was from the folks at the NIT.

Sure, the Wildcat women no doubt held out some faint hope that they would be one of the bubble teams that sneaked into the first round of the Big Dance.  But the 101-71 smack-down they suffered at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal in the semi-finals of the Pac-10 Tournament may have changed their perspective… and perhaps sealed their fate with the NCAA selection committee.

The 6’1″ senior forward, Soana Lucet, carried the heaviest load, scoring 17 points, grabbing four rebounds, and adding three assists and a steal.  And the team’s leading scorer, senior Ify Ibekwe, finished with 15.  But it wasn’t enough against the high-powered Stanford squad, ranked No. 2 in the country.

“Obviously, we are excited our season continues,” acknowledged the Cats’ third-year head coach, Niya Butts, after getting news of the NIT invite.  “We want another chance to take the court and become a better basketball team.”

Actually, they’ve already accomplished that this season.  Their 21-11 record so far this year shows real progress in the program’s rebuilding efforts, particularly after going 14-17 last year and 12-19 in 2009, the year Butts arrived following five years as an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky.

This is Arizona’s first invitation to play in the women’s NIT since the 2000-01 season when Joan Bonvicini was still at the helm of the once-proud program.  They beat Pepperdine, 85-65, in the first round and then were knocked out by New Mexico, 75-62.

This year, they finished in fourth place in the Pac-10.  Right behind that school in Tempe.

But finishing in the top tier of the conference is nothing new to ASU.  The Sun Devils have finished in either second place or third place in the Pac-10 in seven of the last eight years.

Charli Turner Thorne’s teams are regulars at the NCAA Tournament, having been invited six of the last seven years.  In 2005, they made it all the way to the Sweet 16 after upsetting a good Notre Dame team.

Last year was the one they missed, settling for a berth in the NIT, where they were dealt the indignity of exiting in the second round.

The Devils (20-10) were pleasantly surprised with the No. 7 seed they were awarded and will meet 10th-seeded Temple (23-8) in the first round of the Dayton Regional on Saturday in Salt Lake City.

Their low-scoring performance (48-43) against California in their quarter-final exit from the Pac-10 Tournament evidently did little to hurt their post-season chances.  The team’s leading scorer, Dymond Simon, was held to six points and Becca Tobin had team-high for the game with just 10 points.

Both are local products.  Simon is a redshirt senior guard from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix and Tobin is a 6’5″ forward from Cactus High School in Glendale.

ASU has played the Owls one other time in the NCAA Tournament.  In 2008, the Sun Devils (#6 seed) beat Temple (#11 seed) , 61-54, in the first round.

Arizona will have less time to prepare for their first post-season game, since they open against Utah State (17-14) tomorrow on the Aggies’ home floor.  Utah State finished the season in third place in the Western Athletic Conference and lost in the conference tournament to Fresno State.

(Photo: ASU Athletics/Steve Rodriguez)