A head coach knows she’s hired the right assistants when she can step away for a season and the program doesn’t skip a beat.
Charli Turner Thorne did just that last May, announcing that she would be taking a year-long leave of absence and turning the women’ basketball team over to Joe Anders for the 2011-12 season. Anders, a veteran of more than 25 years in the coaching biz, has been on Turner Thorne’s staff for the past decade and has been able to provide a seamless transition to the process.
Turner Thorne, who has been at the helm of the program for the past 15 years, said she wanted “an opportunity to re-center” herself and have more time for family. Her last season ended in frustration, as a 20-win Sun Devil squad lost in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 Tournament and then got bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the first round in an 18-point loss to Temple.
But the temporary change in leadership appears to be working well. The results, in fact, have been almost uncanny so far. The team’s start under Anders has been a mirror image of last season’s 10-2 start.
This edition of the Sun Devils also just won their Pac-12 opener – just as last year’s team opened conference play with a win. But this win had to be even sweeter. Last year, they opened the conference schedule with a win against Oregon, but this year the victim was hated rival, Arizona.
ASU took a 26-25 halftime lead in the New Year’s Eve game and then went on an 11-0 run in the second half to pull away to a 60-45 victory. Arizona’s 45 points were 28 below its season average as the Sun Devil defense held the visiting Cats to just 32 percent shooting from the field.
That has become a trademark for this team. In just about every game this season, the Devils have held their opponents below their shooting percentages and scoring averages. Arizona was no exception.
For the Wildcats, it was just another frustrating attempt to begin leveling the series between the two schools. ASU has now won 14 of the last 16 games and just picked up half a point in the Territorial Cup competition for this year.
And this was looking like it might be the game that begins to tilt the table toward Arizona, since the Cats came into the game with an impressive 11-1 record and a six-game winning streak – the best start for the program since the 1999-2000 season.
The Devils are on a three-game winning streak, but had to pick themselves up after a narrow two-point win over UTEP to close out the non-conference schedule. Alex Earl had to hit a three-point shot, her only make out of eight trey attempts on the night, with just over a minute left to avoid the upset.
ASU’s 47 points were the fewest in any game this season, as the Devils shot just 32 percent. Once again, it was the defense that saved the day.
But it was a different story in the conference opener, at least in the second half.
A Kimberly Brandon basket at the 16:06 mark erased Arizona’s 30-29 lead, and the Sun Devils were off to the races – helped by four Wildcat turnovers. The Cats turned the ball over 19 times in all.
The other key factor to this Sun Devil win came in the paint. ASU out-rebounded the Cats, 46-33.
Brandon and teammate Micaela Pickens each had 13 points for ASU, while the Cats’ scoring was led by Davellyn Whyte‘s 19 points. Erica Barnes added 14 points and 12 boards for Arizona.
This game probably marks the point at which Anders hopes this season no longer resembles last year. After the 10-2 start, last year’s Sun Devils fell to California – despite a 24-point scoring performance by senior forward Becca Tobin.
The Devils will have to beat USC on Thursday to avoid that pitfall.
The Trojans are just 6-6 on the season, but will come into Tempe with a full head of steam after beating California by 20 points.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)