ASU women's basketball has experience, leadership guide them to tournament
On March 19, 2011, the ASU women's basketball team lost to the Temple Owls 63-45 in the first round of the NCAA Women's Tournament in Salt Lake City. That was the last game the program has played in the NCAA Tournament.
Guard Deja Mann started that game for the Sun Devils, scoring seven points and leading the team with two assists.
Guard Adrianne Thomas also played in that game, playing 12 scoreless minutes and recording a steal and an assist.
Center Joy Burke was a part of that team, but did not play in that game.
Now all three are seniors, with Mann and Burke holding redshirts and are on their way back to March Madness.
Since that game, the Sun Devils have reached the postseason once, losing to Pacific in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament in 2012. That season, ASU was led by guard Dymond Simon, who was in her senior year. Simon was the main contributor to ASU during her time, but fought a fair amount of injuries, which hampered her. That season Simon averaged 13.2 points per game, good for first on the team, and also led her team in assists.
In the interim, the program has gone through a rough patch. Back-to-back years without making the NCAA Tournament, coach Charli Turner Thorne's year on leave and last year's 13-win campaign had left ASU in flux.
Turner Thorne knows the time her seniors have had has not been the best in the program's history but sees the other side of the struggles.
"This is a team that is kind of rebuilding the culture of the program," she said. "These players who have been the constants have been great leaders as we have rebuilt."
Those involved with both teams see distinct differences between the last tournament team for the Sun Devils and this year's edition of ASU women's basketball.
"That year we just had enough pieces to make it. Dymond was playing great, Tenaya (Watson) and Becca (Tobin) were playing well, " Mann said. "This year, we play even more together, and we have even more pieces to make a good, deep run."
Thomas said her current teammates' camaraderie is what makes this team better than the 2010-11 team.
"I would say that this team is more connected than the first team I was on, not to say that that team didn't have any chemistry," Thomas said. "I just feel that as a senior, I've grown into a bigger role, we really have each others backs and we have a lot more connectedness."
Mann credited her sophomore year with shaping her improvement, both athletically and mentally.
"I think, being on the court with Dymond and Tenaya, you had to pick your game up to a higher level, that was the main thing that helped me," Mann said. "Going to the tournament and losing, I learned what is going to get you there and what's not going to."
Her progression has also helped her become a leader in the locker room.
"I've tried to help others," Mann said. "I've experienced a lot of different things since I've been here, so you just want to help them, tell them what I know and just try to lead by example, too."
Turner Thorne, who recruited the three remaining players from that last tournament team, knew how valuable her seniors would be for her program.
"(Burke) was recruited by everyone in the country and (Thomas) and (Mann) were guards that I thought could really help us," Turner Thorne said. "And here they are at the back end of their careers doing great things for us, which we always knew they would and expected them to."
Turner Thorne said she knows what her girls have gone through to get to this moment.
"All three of these players suffered injuries that somewhat detoured their careers and somewhat gave them adversity above and beyond a lot of college athletes," Turner Thorne said. "It definitely slowed their contributions to our program."
In high school, Mann had two ACL injuries and Burke tore her meniscus. As a freshman at ASU, Thomas chipped her ankle and then had major surgery.
The Sun Devils have accomplished their first goal of the season, according to Burke, but the team is far from done.
"Our biggest goal was to have the biggest turnaround season in the NCAA," Burke said. "We didn't have a good season last year and so we've already made great strides in that area."
If the Sun Devils can keep up what they've been doing all season, Burke said she sees her team doing big things.
"From the beginning, we've said that the sky is the limit," Burke said. "I think that if we can keep getting better, keep working hard and staying together and doing what we've done all season, I really don't see a reason why we can't go further than where this program has gone before." Turner Thorne said she is appreciative and happy to see this group of seniors bring the program back from a disappointing last couple seasons.
"When they signed, we were a nationally ranked program," Turner Thorne said. "We haven't really been where we wanted to be through most of their careers, so it's just wonderful for me to see them help get ASU women's basketball back to where it once was."
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