Courtney Ekmark must have begun to wonder if she had something to do with the Arizona State women’s basketball team’s inability to get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After all, her previous team won a couple of national titles while she was there, but the Sun Devils hadn’t been able to get past the second round.
The senior from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix transferred into the Sun Devil program from UConn in 2016, sat out the 2016-17 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, and then started every game last season.
There wasn’t much she could do to help the Sun Devils during the 2016-17 season, when ASU entered the tourney as a No. 8 seed and fell to eventual champion South Carolina in the second game. But her first year on the floor for ASU, when she led her new team in three-point shooting, the seventh-seeded Devils fell again in the second round, this time to No. 2 Texas.
But last year’s second-round exit was even more frustrating for those players who had been on the ASU team prior to her arriving. It was actually the third season in a row that the second round proved to be a wall too high to climb. The Devils were seeded No. 2, the highest in program history, but were upset by No. 7 Tennessee.
By the time the Longhorns knocked them off the path to the Sweet 16 last year, it was beginning to feel like the Devils were cursed. Would they ever again make it into the rarified air that just 16 teams reach each season?
It was easy to forget that the program has been there before when you keep hitting your head against an invisible ceiling. During her 22 seasons directing the ASU program, head coach Charli Turner Thorne has taken her teams to five Sweet 16 berths, the most recent prior to this year in 2015. The Devils also advanced to that level in 2005, 2007, and 2009, and have gone on twice to play in the Elite Eight round, in 2007 and 2009.
This time it took a strong defensive effort in the first game, against 12th-seeded Central Florida, and a thrilling finish in the final minutes of the victory against Miami to advance to Friday’s game against Mississippi State, the top seed in the Portland Regional.
(Update: Mississippi State proved to be too high a hill to climb. An ASU combination of 16 turnovers, early foul trouble, 36 percent shooting, and getting out-rebounded (42-31), all contributed to the 76-53 Mississippi State victory. The Devils were within nine points of the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs after three quarters, but Mississippi State pulled away in the final frame.)
The No. 22-ranked Sun Devils (22-10) overcame 18 turnovers and stifling full-court zone pressure to get past UCF. It was an uncharacteristic display for ASU, which came into the tournament 14th-best in the nation for fewest turnovers per game.
But an ASU team ranked tops in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (58.2 ppg) held the Knights to 16 points in the first half, while the offense led the Devils to a 22-point lead in the third quarter on the way to a 60-45 victory. Ekmark led the offense with a game-high 20 points and fellow senior, Kianna Ibis, contributed a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds. The two three-pointers Ekmark canned in this game gave her 66 on the season, second-best in the ASU history books.
Sunday’s game against Miami was not nearly as comfortable, coming down to the final seconds before ASU pulled out the 57-55 win. With the score tied at 55-55 and just 10 seconds left on the clock, ASU stole the inbounds pass and Robbi Ryan was fouled on a lay-up at the other end. The junior guard dropped in both charity shots and, with five seconds left, a lay-up by the Knights rimmed the hoop and fell out, giving ASU the heart-stopping victory.
Miami’s 6-3 Emese Hof and 6-4 center Beatrice Mompremier made life difficult under the hoop as the Hurricanes outscored ASU in the paint, 32-12, and out-rebounded the Devils, 43-32. But ASU cleaned up the turnover problem, committing just seven to Miami’s 15, and got 29 points from a deep bench that has served ASU well all season. In fact. it was Jamie Ruden, the 6”2″ junior forward, who came off the bench to score a team-high 10 points.
After the Miami win, Turner Thorne pointed out that second-round exits are “not what our program is about. We’re definitely a team that could make a deep run, if they’re ready to empty out and really lock in. The mission is to get past the second round.”
Like they say, be careful what you wish for. Mississippi State, which has lost just two games all season, outscored its first two tourney opponents by a combined 81 points.
Getting to ASU’s third Elite Eight appearance is going to be extremely challenging.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)