It has been a long and mentally-challenging climb up the hill since the Arizona State women’s basketball team lost its season opener and then went on to lose three of its first four games.
But a 68-59 win Sunday over Boston College has put the Sun Devils over the .500 hump for the first time – and has helped return the optimism that hung in the air during the pre-season when the players were anticipating the return of head coach Charli Turner Thorne. After 15 years running the Pac-12 program, Turner Thorne took the 2011-12 season off to recharge her batteries and spend time with her family.
Now she’s back and trying to guide a young and inexperienced team to its 14th consecutive post-season appearance. She took the program to 12 of those appearances and her then-assistant coach, Joe Anders, rolled up a 20-12 record last year in her absence to earn a berth in the WNIT.
She has six NCAA Tournament appearances while at ASU, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight in 2009.
But this year will be a challenge. The team was picked in the pre-season to finish fifth (tie) in the conference, despite the fact that the squad lost its top three scorers and has just one returning starter.
It took the team awhile to find its way this season, get some playing time for the emerging starters, and try to blend in six new players. They turned the ball over 22 times in the opener with Texas Tech and lost that game by 12 points.
But a big win over Florida in the final game of a holiday tournament in Las Vegas closed out November and seemed to turn the tide. The Devils have won four of five games since then, with the lone loss coming at the hands of the No. 23-ranked Dayton Flyers.
The defense showed it is up to the challenge going forward as it held Dayton, a team that was averaging 86 points a game going into the contest, to just 65 points in the six-point loss.
After that loss, it’s been two straight road wins as the Devils beat Providence and Boston College, and tonight face off in a home contest against San Diego.
San Diego is a 6-2 team coming off a loss to San Diego State. But the Toreros have won five of their last six and lead the West Coast Conference in scoring with 72 points a game. They allow an average of just 54.5 points a game.
The Toreros will test the Sun Devils (5-4), but there are some very encouraging signs emerging for ASU fans:
– There is stability in the starting line-up. ASU has used the same starters in every game so far: Adrienne Thomas, Promise Amukamara, and Micaela Pickens in the back court and Janae Fulcher and Joy Burke underneath the bucket. Two of those starters are local athletes, with Burke coming out of Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe; Amukamara, who led the team last year in field-goal percentage, played at Apollo High School in Glendale.
– ASU has been in every game. Three of the four losses so far have been decided by six or fewer points; the largest margin was 12 points.
– The offense has become efficient and the defense is stingy. The Devils are shooting 46.7 per cent from the field in their last five games and the defense has held opponents to just 35.3 per cent during that stretch.
– And the mistakes are being minimized. In the last game against Boston College, the team posted a season-low 15 turnovers.
Just nine games into the season, things are trending in the right direction. These Devils got off to a slow start, but seem to be catching up.
But success during the non-conference part of the schedule doesn’t necessarily translate to success in conference play.
That begins at the start of January when the Sun Devils have to travel to Seattle to open the Pac-12 slate with a game against Washington – an eighth-place pick in the pre-season poll.
And that date with the Huskies is just three games away.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)