Preview: A look inside the new frontcourt of ASU women's basketball

After losing four valuable seniors over the offseason, the Sun Devils' frontcourt will be filled with fresh faces

ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne is fond of last year’s team— going 22-11 in one of the toughest conferences in women’s college basketball was impressive and a return to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament only added to last season’s resume.

Despite the success, for Turner Thorne, 2018-19 is in the rearview mirror.

“I loved last year’s team, but we were just different. We kind of had to modify some of the things we did,” Turner Thorne said. “The fun thing about this (year’s) team is we’re just getting back to our teams that play fast, more aggressive, full-court defense.”

A year ago, the Sun Devils had a big team. They were filled to the brim with experienced frontcourt players while their backcourt was far younger.

But this season, that seems to be the opposite. 

Kianna Ibis, Charnea Johnson-Chapman, Sophia Elenga and Courtney Ekmark have all graduated. Last season those four made up the vast majority of ASU’s rebounding, scoring and general size.

Replacing ASU’s senior squad from last season will be a few different faces; some new and some old.

Freshman forward Eboni Walker is certainly a player to watch. A McDonald’s All-American last season, Walker was the No.44 overall recruit from the Class of 2019.

“I wanted to go somewhere that would push me,” Walker said. “I knew I was going to be challenged.”

Though some opponents may tower over her, Walker did average a double-double a season ago while leading Centennial High School to a fifth straight Class 4A State Championship in Nevada.

Despite her status as a freshman, expect Walker to be on the court early and often for the Sun Devils this season.

“She’s going to be in a position to get good opportunities,” Turner Thorne said. 

Also a newcomer, senior forward Ja'Tavia Tapley had an interesting journey to Tempe.

The graduate transfer from Jacksonville started 15 games as a freshman for USC. Although her sophomore campaign saw a noticeable dip in her per game averages, Tapley’s stock is up again after an uptick in production under USC's head coach Mark Trakh in her junior campaign.

“I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder,” Tapley said. “I definitely want to continue to just up my stats for our team, for us to go as far as we can.”

But after three seasons in the Pac-12, the 6’3 forward is ready for her first and only year in Tempe.

“In a perfect world, we were like, ‘Wow if we can just find a 6’2-6’3 graduate transfer that can play four and five and fit our system and our culture that would be perfect.’ And then it happened,” Turner Thorne said. “It was a Godsend. It was exactly what we were hoping for.”

The Walker-Tapley combination underneath may not be the most intimidating frontcourt in the conference, but the two newcomers have already shown valuable chemistry.

“I’m at the five, she’s at the four and we just look for each other all the time,” Tapley said. “Me and Eboni work great together.”

Now a sophomore, forward Jayde VanHyfte only averaged 6.8 minutes per contest last season. But, learning under the likes of Ibis, Elenga and Johnson-Chapman last season was invaluable for her development.

“Jayde looks amazing,” Turner Thorne said. “She’s been starting the scrimmages for us. She had a year of mentorship behind Kianna Ibis and did her due diligence working.”

A native of Annawan, Illinois, basketball runs in VanHyfte’s blood. 

Two of her siblings have played college basketball. Morgan VanHyfte is now a redshirt junior at Central Missouri while Celina VanHyfte just finished her five-year career at Southern Illinois. Their mother Valerie VanHyft also played ball at Bradley University.

Even VanHyfte’s father was an athlete. Ted VanHyfte played college football at Wake Forest.

“I gave up softball in junior high school, and I just wanted to play basketball,” VanHyfte said. “I learned from my sisters, they played in college. It was a very basketball-oriented family I’d say.”

The positional versatility of Iris Mbulito and the shooting ability of Jamie Ruden provide valuable depth to the Sun Devils frontcourt, but the Sun Devils are still small.

ASU only has two players who are taller than 6’1." All preseason, Turner Thorne has continuously emphasized the importance of rebounding given ASU’s lack of size. 

“Every day it’s the number one thing out of my mouth,” Turner Thorne said. “Last year we would joke about the guards. We would freeze the film and be like ‘there are our three guards hanging around the three-point line,' and we would be saying like ‘those aren’t rebounding spots.’ 

But Turner Thorne isn’t bothered by her team’s lack of size. If anything, she’s more eager to coach a smaller unit.

“We’ve had some good small ball teams,” Turner Thorne said. “I’m just excited for our athleticism and the things that we can do.”

Reach the reporter at and on Twitter @KokiRiley.

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