Women’s basketball focused on return to national scene

HANDS UP: Juniors guard/forward Kimberly Brandon and guard Alex Earl try to block the shot of a Fort Lewis player during last Sunday’s exhibition win. The ASU women’s basketball team opens its season Friday at home against Northern Arizona. (Photo by Rosie Gochnour)

Building on last year and establishing themselves as a hardworking, truly dynamic team are key goals for the ASU women’s basketball team for the upcoming season.

And in order to do that, they will need to excel at rebounding and defense, ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said.

“We’re probably still a little small on the perimeter, but we’re going to work hard to be a great rebounding team,” Thorne said. “It’s going to be our goal to outwork the team that we play.”

Thorne also said that the perimeter shooting looks a lot stronger than last year, but that it’s not something the team is going to rely on.

“We’ll win ugly,” Thorne said. “If we’re shooting well, hopefully we’ll dominate, and if we’re not shooting well, then we’ll find a way to win.”

The return of redshirt senior guard Dymond Simon from injury is a huge boost for the Sun Devil offense, which lacked a true point guard last year, Thorne said.

For Simon, the start of the season represents a highly anticipated end to a long layoff.

“Words can’t really describe it right now,” Simon said. “A year and a half is a very long time and I had to go through a very long process just to get to this point. The games are finally here, and I think I’m fully prepared to go out there and help my team.”

Simon was ASU’s leading scoring through the 2008-2009 season but went down with a knee injury in the season finale against Stanford, missing the team’s deep run into the NCAA tournament.

ASU had high hopes for a return to the Elite Eight last season despite losing six key players to graduation, but an increasing number of injuries made life difficult for the Sun Devils.

“I think the team performed about as well as they could have last year,” Thorne said. “We had a lot of injuries, and we just didn’t have the roster that we were supposed to have.

“It was definitely a big growing year for us and a big learning year for us.”

Three of ASU’s new recruits started the season injured, and Simon ended up missing the whole season. The Sun Devils were still looking strong until then-junior starting point guard Tenaya Watson missed a key stretch in February due to injury as well.

“Everything that could have really happened, did,” Thorne said. “We had a lot of inexperience, a lot of key players out.”

Despite all that, the Sun Devils still finished with a winning record (18-14) and made a postseason appearance for the 11th year in row, falling to Brigham Young in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

While it didn’t seem like it during the season, the struggles ASU faced last year were good for the team, Simon said.

“I think that team had to go through last year in order to see what college basketball was all about,” Simon said.

And with Simon returning to point guard, other position players will be able to slide back into positions that they are more comfortable playing, Simon said.

The squad spent the offseason working to improve their game and mature as a team, and redshirt sophomore forward Janae Fulcher said she thinks the team accomplished those goals.

“We worked really hard on coming together as a team all spring and all summer, and now I think it’s really paying off on the court,” Fulcher said. “I’m so excited to see what we can do together.”

Thorne also said the drive to improve upon the record the team had last year made a big difference in the offseason.

“I think this year’s team sacrificed more and worked harder this offseason than the team before,” Thorne said. “The task now is to get all the bad offseason habits out of the way.”

The Sun Devils had a chance to do that in an exhibition game against Division II Fort Lewis, an 89-56 ASU win.

Fort Lewis did shoot over 66 percent in the second half, but the Sun Devils outrebounded the Skyhawks 49-24 and racked up 27 second-chance points and 33 points off turnovers.

The non-conference schedule for the Sun Devils may be just as important as the conference schedule. An away game at Tennessee, ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP poll, will be an important test for ASU.

The Pac-10 looks set to live up to its reputation as one of the toughest all-around conferences in the country. Almost every team in the conference other than Oregon State has a core group of players returning, Thorne said, and the Pac-10 is historically difficult.

For Simon, the season is going to be as tough as the Sun Devils make it.

“If we do the things that we need to do, such as rebounding and playing our defense and just being more of a connected team, I don’t think we’ll have a big problem,” Simon said. “It’s definitely going to be an exciting year.”

Reach the reporter at egrasser@asu.edu