TEMPE – Wells Fargo Arena was empty Wednesday afternoon, as only the sounds of basketball practice echoed through the building, but that won’t be the case Friday as Arizona State women’s basketball is hosting the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
March Madness will be in full effect in Tempe, and the second game features the host No. 2 seed Sun Devils (25-6) and No. 15 seed New Mexico State Aggies (26-4). Whichever team advances goes on to play the winner of the early game, No. 7 seed Tennessee versus No. 10 seed Green Bay, scheduled for 2 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena just before ASU’s.
“We’re just really excited for the opportunity,” said junior forward Sophie Brunner, who is averaging 10.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, “and just excited to play at home too.”
The Sun Devils have not lost a home game since Virginia Commonwealth defeated them 57-48 during the ASU Classic in early December. After that the Sun Devils won 22 of their next 23 games, with the only loss was to eventual conference tournament champion Oregon State, also a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Although the Sun Devils’ 16 conference wins won them a share of the Pac-12 regular season title with Oregon State, they lost their first game in the conference tournament’s second round to California after earning a bye. ASU also lost its last game of the regular season to now-No. 3 seed UCLA on the road, so the Sun Devils enter the big dance having not won a game since the end of February.
“I think most people understood we just were tired,” said coach Charli Turner Thorne. “We had been like four out of six weeks on the road and the back-end of our schedule was brutal and we had long road trips where we had to stay extra days. We just kind of ran out of gas that last two weeks.”
Despite that ASU is making its third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and its 11th under Turner Thorne, who was named 2016 Pac-12 Coach of the Year. ASU’s No. 2 seed is the best in school history.
“I think just reflecting back on last year and how far we went in the post-season and we knew we could’ve even gone farther,” Brunner said. “We’re really just taking the opportunity this year and really grabbing it and just going with it.”
Last season Florida State sent the Sun Devils home in the Sweet 16 after a 65-64 contest and the year before that Notre Dame, who went on to lose in the 2014 title game, beat ASU in the second round.
The maroon-and-gold wearing women hope that wins on Friday and Sunday send them to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the Sweet 16 and give them a chance to go even deeper into the tournament.
“Obviously you get defined a lot by your postseason success,” Turner Thorne said. “How we do in this tournament, I know a lot of people will feel like that kind of defines our year. I think we’ve had an amazing year already but we’ll have to see what this team does.
“This is a really special team so you don’t want to miss them,” she said.