ASU women’s hoops gets transfer…loses local prep star

Charli Turner Thorne picked up a top talent when Katie Hempen decided to transfer to the Arizona State women’s basketball program from Illinois, where she was the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year.

But the bigger catch got away from the head coach.  One of the top-ranked  high school players in the nation has opted to play at Connecticut, after giving a Sun Devils’ scholarship offer some serious consideration.

Courtney Ekmark just completed her sophomore season at St. Mary’s High School in central Phoenix.  She has led the Knights to consecutive state titles and the team went undefeated last year, going 30-0 and earning the mythical national championship.

Ekmark is ranked No. 3 in the country at her position by ESPN HoopGurlz – and has two more years to get even better before starting what is sure to be an outstanding college career.

She really wanted to play at home, says her father, Curtis, who is also the head coach at St. Mary’s.  But he called the UConn offer a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The competition for her commitment was already fierce.  ASU was up against offers from big-name basketball programs that included not only UConn, but also Duke, North Carolina, and Stanford.

Ekmark has been considering Connecticut since she made an official visit to the campus Feb. 27.  A flat tire on the car she and her dad rented, combined with a flooded hotel room, evidently weren’t enough to spoil the experience.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma was actually somewhat apprehensive about accepting an oral commitment from a sophomore, since he was publicly embarrassed several years ago when high-profile recruit, Jacki Gemelos, committed as a sophomore to play for the Huskies, but changed her mind the next year.

But when Ekmark called Auriemma last week to tell him she was committing, it was hard to turn down the opportunity to make her the first commit in the Class of 2014.

One thing Auriemma can count on: his latest recruit won’t have issues trying to stay academically eligible.  Ekmark caries a 4.0 average at St. Mary’s and is No. 1 in her class.

Meanwhile, back in Tempe… Turner Thorne found a smart kid of her own.   Katie Hempen was on the honor roll last season at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.  But her honor as the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year is more likely what caught the ASU head coach’s attention.

Turner Thorne won’t have Hempen in the line-up in the fall, while she sits out a season due to NCAA transfer rules.  But the 5-8 guard will be able to join the team on the practice court.

“We are thrilled to have her join our family and know, despite having to sit out for a year, she will immediately work with her teammates to help elevate our program back to an elite level,” said the head coach when announcing the transfer.  However, when she does get out on the floor, she will have three years of eligibility remaining.

Hempen played in all 30 games last season and was the second leading scorer, with 9.7 points a game, and was also third in three-point field goals.  She scored in double figures 15 times and hit 19 twice.

While Hempen will be a big boost down the road, Turner Thorne added some more immediate help in mid-April when she signed a couple of high-scoring forwards.

Nisha Barrett will likely provide help right out of the chute next season because she has already been exposed to college ball, tranferring in from Barstow Community College in California, where she was the conference Player of the Year last season. The 6’1″ forward averaged 18.9 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game.

“Nisha has a tremendous combination of exceptional athleticism and basketball savvy,” said Turner Thorne at Barrett’s signing.  “She can flat-out score, rebound, and block shots.”

Haley Videckis was signed at the same time.  The 6’0″ forward from Barlett High School in Illinois finished her high school career in third place on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,350 points.  She also left with the school record for career 3-pointers with 133.

She helped the school to a 32-2 record by averaging a team-high 18 points and 5.9 rebounds.

Turner Thorne’s take on Videckis:  “Haley is a tough, aggressive sharp-shooting forward who just knows how to get it done on the court.”

It would appear that ASU is beginning to stock the cupboards with some talent, some of Turner Thorne’s first moves since returning from a year-long sabbatical to step back onto the court for her 16th season.

But the addition of Ekmark a couple of years down the road might have been the piece to the puzzle that would have helped ASU get back to the elite level she spoke about.

The Devils have been to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament twice.  Ekmark might have been the key to getting over even that lofty hump.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)