Nobody expected ASU women's basketball to end its season like this — not players, coaches, reporters or the selection committee.
Pegged as a No. 2 seed in the Sioux Falls region, expectations had never been higher for a Sun Devil team that finished 26-7 with a 16-2 record in the Pac-12 — a conference in which they were regular season co-champions.
But when it came time to face No. 7 seed Tennessee in the round of 32, ASU collapsed as a result of its most glaring weaknesses: size and offensive consistency. It was undoubtedly a bad matchup for the Sun Devils as The Lady Volunteers (21-13, 8-8 SEC) escaped Tempe with a 75-64 win.
"Any time we had any kind of miscue they took advantage," ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. "I love this team — they've been a blast to coach (and) definitely haven't underachieved."
Despite the early round exit, senior point guard Elisha Davis echoed Turner Thorne's sentiments about this season not being a disappointment for her team.
"The ultimate competitive advantage is teamwork, and I think we did that very well throughout the season," Davis said. "I think we accomplished a lot. Obviously you want to accomplish more ... but you know just keep your head up and keep moving."
ASU had trouble defending the interior down the stretch of what was an otherwise highly successful season, and that struggle reared its ugly head once again on Sunday. Tennessee finished with a staggering 42 points in the paint and many of them came in the early going from sophomore center Mercedes Russell.
Thanks to the efforts of a forward like Russell and slashing guards like sophomores Diamond DeShields and Jaime Nared, the Lady Vols won the rebounding battle 36-30. DeShields was a force in the scoring department as well, notching a game-high 24 points with a large portion coming in the fourth quarter.
"If it wasn't me, it was Jaime; and if it wasn't Jaime, it was (Mercedes)," DeShields said. "The fourth quarter was my moment — everyone of us had our own little moments to take over the game."
Many of Russell's moments came in the first quarter, as she scored 10 of her 12 points in the opening frame and set the tone for Tennessee inside. After one quarter of play, the Lady Vols led 20-17.
In the second quarter the pace didn't slow as both teams were flying down the court, more often than not attempting their first shot before the shot clock hit 20. The offensive output may have been average as ASU won the quarter 16-13, but the level of competitiveness in this matchup was far from typical — as is expected with an NCAA tournament game of this magnitude.
For Turner Thorne and the Sun Devils, this game felt far different from a matchup between a No. 2 and No. 7 seed.
"For us, probably the worst matchup we could have asked for," Turner Thorne said. "They are playing their best basketball right now, and we needed to play better."
The Sun Devils and Lady Vols were knotted at 33 apiece after the first 20 minutes before the road side pulled away in the final 20.
When it appeared that ASU would enter the fourth quarter down double digits, Davis hit a deep three-pointer at the buzzer to bring her team within seven, pumping up the raucous Sun Devil fans and giving them a glimmer of hope.
Raucous as they may have been despite a less-than-impressive student turnout, ASU fans watched on as one of the greatest teams in program history ran into what can only be described as a checkerboard wall. The Lady Vols slammed the door on a Sun Devil comeback in the fourth and propelled themselves into the Sweet 16 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
ASU says goodbye five seniors with the loss: guards Arnecia Hawkins, Katie Hempen, Peace Amukamara and Davis, along with forward Eliza Normen.
In an emotional postgame press conference, Turner Thorne teared up in a long pause when discussing Normen's toughness as well as the impact of this senior class as a whole.
"They don't have the most talent," Turner Thorne said. "We just worked our stinking tails off and we're disciplined."
Davis displayed both of those traits in her time as a Sun Devil, and shared an emotional moment of her own with the ASU crowd after the game. As soon as the buzzer sounded and postgame handshakes were completed, Davis took a lap around the edge of the court at Wells Fargo Arena — holding up pitchfork hand gestures the whole way.
"I kind of wanted to live in that moment because after that, I won't get that," Davis said. "I kind of wanted to suck it all in — like a Capri Sun, just suck it all the way up until there's no more left."
Only someone like Davis could think of such a unique metaphor for the end of the Sun Devils' season.
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