Anything can happen in March Madness, where unbelievable moments come as an expectation, and ASU women’s basketball knows that as do the Miami Hurricanes.
It was no different in Coral Gables, Florida, on Sunday night as No. 5 seed ASU won 57-55 in thrilling fashion against No. 4 seed Miami at Watsco Center to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Portland, Oregon.
ASU (22-10) has grown accustom to nail-biting games this season. On Sunday night, the Sun Devils played in another down-to-the-wire matchup.
It ultimately came down to the final possessions, causing emotions to swirl about Watsco Center. Miami (25-9) had a chance with five seconds left as senior center Emese Hof had a decent opportunity for a game-tying contested layup.
After she released the ball, with the clock winding down, the ball bounced off the backboard and rolled across the rim. But as the buzzer was about to sound, the ball ultimately didn’t fall in the net, causing the Sun Devils to rush the court in pure joy and sending Miami into absolute heartbreak.
“Whew. I thought it was going in, honestly," redshirt senior forward Courtney Ekmark said. "It was amazing. It is really sweet.”
As she sat in the postgame media session, junior guard Robbi Ryan reflected on the crucial last-second play. Ryan said she thought the ball was on the rim forever.
“You could have blown on that ball and it would have went in,” Ryan said. “It was a scary moment, for sure, but it was a great feeling when it rolled off the rim.”
However, before that final shot, each team produced big-time moments.
It started with senior forward Sophia Elenga, who finished with nine points and four rebounds off bench. No point, though, was more crucial than the midrange shot Elenga made with 1:53 left to give ASU a 55-53 lead.
As the shot clock ticked away, Elenga caught a pass from junior guard Reili Richardson, and she took the wide-open opportunity.
“I was so happy that it went in,” Elenga said. “I have been working on it all year, but I couldn’t make any. But this time, it went in.”
After that, some chaos ensued as Miami redshirt junior guard Laura Cornelius, who finished with a team-high 15 points, made a tough layup to tie the game at 55. On the next play, senior forward Kianna Ibis missed a shot for ASU, then Hurricanes redshirt junior forward Beatrice Mompremier had a layup chance for Miami.
Although Mompremier set a career-high on Sunday with 22 rebounds, she couldn’t find a groove on offense thanks to tough post and all-around defense from the Sun Devils. Mompremier missed the shot, then Ryan missed a three-pointer and Elenga missed a hook shot on the other end, giving Miami a chance to win the game with 10.2 seconds left.
But shockingly, ASU stole the inbounds pass as Ryan poked the ball toward Ekmark.
“(Ryan) knew that I was going to get it, so she just took off and yelled my name, and I just chucked it up to her," Ekmark said. "It ended up being perfect."
Ryan corralled the outlet pass and as she went for a layup, Hof fouled her, sending her to the free-throw line.
She calmly knocked down the game-winning free throws with five seconds left, crediting all the practice throughout the season.
With its challenge-filled non-conference and Pac-12 schedule, ASU wasn’t scared in the hostile atmosphere or to play against imposing players, such as Mompremier and Hof, who stand about 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-3, respectively.
ASU started the game off well and built an early lead, only for Hurricanes sophomore guard Mykea Gray to come alive later in the first half, scoring all her 13 points before halftime. Many players stepped up off the bench for ASU, including Elenga and freshmen guards Iris Mbulito and Taya Hanson, but junior forward Jamie Ruden was the most impactful.
ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne mentioned on Saturday that Ruden could be key. Ruden lived up to the expectation, as she scored a team-high 10 points, including two three-pointers early in the fourth quarter.
“I just tried to take any opportunity my teammates could create for me and they were really encouraging me and hyping me up to keep shooting,” Ruden said. “That helped me a lot to just keep that confidence going. I am just really pumped. I have been yelling for like a half hour.”
Despite the loss, Miami coach Katie Meier was the first to send high praise toward the Sun Devils, saying they were a gritty squad, especially on defense.
Meier added that ASU taught the Hurricanes a lesson in toughness.
“They were as tough as any team we have played all year,” Meier said. “They were committed to their game plan. … Charli Turner Thorne is a really great person and she runs a great program, and one great team won and one great team lost. Heck of a matchup to go to the Sweet Sixteen, and that is what the NCAA is all about.”
Turner Thorne did the same, praising Meier and her team, as well.
ASU will head to the Moda Center in Portland to play against No. 1 seed Mississippi State on Friday, who are back-to-back National Champion runners-up.
“The next mission is to get to the Elite Eight,” Turner Thorne said.