ASU women's basketball entering 2015-16 season with high expectations

The Sun Devils return major contributors from a 2014-15 team that made a deep postseason run.

No. 15 ASU women's basketball tips off its 2015-16 season on Sunday, returning to the hardwood after making a Sweet Sixteen run in the NCAA tournament last year.

The Sun Devils return four of their five starters after losing Promise Amukamara to graduation. Amukamara was a two-time all-conference defender who played in every game that she was eligible over her four years in Tempe, and that presence will be greatly missed by ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne and company.

Turner Thorne has plenty to be excited about with this year's team, however. In addition to bringing back seniors Elisha Davis and Katie Hempen in the backcourt, the Sun Devils retain their entire front line with the return of junior forwards Sophie Brunner and Kelsey Moos, senior forward Eliza Normen, and junior center Quinn Dornstauder. 

Amukamara's sister, Peace, will also play a key role for ASU and is joined on the wing by senior Arnecia Hawkins.

Peace Amukamara said she will miss playing with her sister, but that it won't be a major adjustment.

"(Promise) was always there to keep me on my toes," Amukamara said. "So that will be different."

After finishing with a record of 29-6 last season, good enough for a second-place regular season finish in the Pac-12 behind Oregon State, expectations are high for this veteran-laden and battle-tested Sun Devil team.

Turner Thorne said she hopes a lot of things carry over from the successes of last year.

"The one thing that we've talked about is staying hungry and humble – this is a completely new season," Turner Thorne said. "With pretty much everyone in our corps coming back, and some pretty talented freshmen, it's exciting."

New blood, same DNA 

That new crop of freshmen includes guard Sabrina Haines out of Desert Vista, forward Kianna Ibis, 6'3" center Charnea Johnson-Chapman, and guard Armani Hawkins (sister of Arnecia).

Although none of the newcomers are expected to contribute immediately or break into the rotation, Davis said she sees a lot of potential out of this class.

"They're overwhelmed, but they're so receptive and coachable," Davis said. "They're like sponges. That allows me as a veteran leader to either show them tough love, or give them a hug."

Another seasoned vet and vocal leader is Hempen, who led the team in scoring last season. Hempen poses a major threat from beyond the arc, and that was exemplified when she set the school record for three-pointers made in a season with 76 in 2014-15.

Hempen said she communicates with her teammates as much as she can and tries to lead by example out on the court in practice and games.

"Ever since I've been here I've been the talker on the team," Hempen said. "We're really starting to get a lot more people talking and getting mentally engaged on defense and offense."

That veteran leadership will be the one of the calling cards of this team, and is an important advantage to have for a group that isn't the tallest or most talented in the country.

Davis, Brunner and Hempen finished last season averaging 10.9, 11.9 and 12.0 points per game, respectively – a testament to the structure of this cohesive group. No one player will average 18-20 points throughout the season, but the Sun Devils will score in bunches thanks to an offensive system that favors ball movement and quality looks over "hero ball" and heavy reliance on top scorers.

An underrated force on both sides of the ball is Brunner, who led the team in rebounding, steals, free throws made and field goal percentage last season.

Despite being only 6'1", Brunner plays with the necessary tenacity on the glass and in the post that allows her to be so successful. This level of effort and skill will be crucial to an undersized ASU team's success against bigger and stronger squads.

Brunner said she and her teammates expect to continue playing their brand of basketball and not miss a beat from the success of last year.

"I would say that our expectations are pretty high," Brunner said. "We weren't happy with where we ended last year, because we lost by a point (to Florida State), so we want to get back to where we were last year and get even farther."

A combination of experience, chemistry and veteran poise has ASU picked to finish among the top three teams in the Pac-12 by many experts, and 15th in the country in both the AP and coaches polls.

The area where the Sun Devils are severely lacking compared to other elite programs is size. Modeling the success of "small ball" teams like the Golden State Warriors of the NBA, Turner Thorne said her team will make up for a shorter starting lineup with effort on the glass, discipline on defense and execution on offense.

"Height can be really helpful, but I don't think that it's necessarily proven to make you a better basketball team," Turner Thorne said. "We've gotta really be in a position to work hard and do the things we're coached to do. If our posts are running and playing fast, I think we'll get the better of bigger teams."

Going through the gauntlet 

Bigger and more talented teams will most decidedly be on the docket for ASU in the upcoming season, and Turner Thorne made sure to put together one of the most challenging schedules in the country for her seasoned Sun Devil squad.

ASU opens the season with a home game against No. 18 Kentucky, and will face No. 2 South Carolina on Nov. 27th in the first game of the Hawaii Tournament. 

Other notable games on the out-of-conference schedule include a rematch with No. 7 Florida State, the team that eliminated ASU from the NCAA tournament last season, as well as a road game against No. 23 Syracuse.

There are two other Pac-12 teams in the AP Top 25, including No. 10 Oregon State and No. 16 Stanford. The Sun Devils only play the Beavers once but have two games scheduled against the Cardinal.

Turner Thorne said her team's schedule is among the most challenging in the country.

"We schedule tough, and this is possibly the toughest schedule we've had in my 20 years," Turner Thorne said.

Pointing to the extensive postseason experience of her team, Turner Thorne said her team is ready for the challenge of playing against such elite programs.

"There's really not anything that these returners haven't seen," Turner Thorne said. "By the time you get to Pac-12 and you've played all the teams that we're gonna play, you know, we say bring it on."

According to Turner Thorne and her players alike, the intangibles will be what sets this Sun Devil team apart from its more talented opponents throughout this upcoming season.

Those intangibles include holding each other accountable on the court, but also being a close group off the court and maintaining high team chemistry. Both situations hold true for ASU.

Davis, who is as fun-loving and focused as they come, said her team has to be sure to clean up the little things while continuing to have fun together.

"I like that we can actually hang out with each other and not be forced to," Davis said. "How we interact with each other is beautiful. You have to find people who want to work hard and embrace that palm down culture, which is just being selfless and not worried about what you'll get back."

The potential for ASU women's basketball this season is clear: This is a team that can make yet another deep postseason run, and it isn't going to be a result of unbelievable talent.

The Sun Devils boast a balanced, experienced starting lineup with a number of serviceable contributors coming off the bench. Barring any major health concerns, ASU is poised to contend with the likes of Oregon State and Stanford for a Pac-12 title once again.

The first two weeks of the season will give insight into the caliber of this Sun Devil squad. With four of its five games away from Tempe, two of which against the No. 2 and 18 teams in the country, ASU will return from Hawaii with an identity that molds the remainder of its season.

In 18 years as the head coach at ASU, Turner Thorne has compiled a record of 354-213 and appeared in the NCAA tournament 10 times. She's never won a national championship, but this season might be her and the Sun Devils' best shot yet.

The road to Indianapolis begins at Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday as ASU squares off with No. 18 Kentucky in its 2015-16 season opener. The Wildcats are a tall, athletic, physical team that will pose a challenge on the glass to the Sun Devils.

ASU vs. Kentucky tips off at 3:30 p.m. and will be broadcasted on Pac-12 Networks.


Reach the reporter at rclarke6@asu.edu or follow @RClarkeASU on Twitter.

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