ASU women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne talks with Jeff Metcalfe on facing Michigan State in the first round. (Michael Chow/azcentral sports)
No. 8-seeded Sun Devils meet No. 9 Michigan State in first round
All that’s left for the Arizona State women’s basketball senior class to accomplish is advancing beyond the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
The Sun Devils fell a basket short of the Elite Eight in 2015, losing 66-65 to Florida State when a win would have advanced them to a game against South Carolina.
So, for the ASU seniors, making their fourth consecutive NCAA appearance at South Carolina is challenging but fitting. If they play the No. 1-seeded Gamecocks in the second round, they will have a chance to avenge a 60-58 loss in the third game of the 2015-16 season that Sophie Brunner and Kelsey Moos were unable to finish due to injury.
But, first things first.
No. 9-seed Michigan State (21-11) warrants No. 8 ASU’s full attention for a first-round game Friday in the first meeting between the programs. The Sun Devils (19-12) are a mere eight places higher in the NCAA ratings percentage index, No. 34 vs. No. 42. ASU was fifth in the Pac-12 and Michigan State sixth in the Big Ten. Both played Maryland and Oregon with ASU going 1-1 and Michigan State 0-3. The Spartans score more (73.8 ppg) and the Sun Devils are better on defense (allowing 57.3 ppg).
ASU has wins over Florida and Kentucky but went 0-8 vs. ranked Pac-12 teams, hindered by injuries that took Moos and freshmen Jamie Ruden and Kiara Russell out for a combined 36 games. Ruden was not expected back at all after undergoing right foot surgery in early January but that plan changed when it was learned she had played in one game too many to be eligible for a redshirt season.
Fortunately, Ruden had worked diligently enough on her rehabilitation that she was medically cleared to play the day before the Pac-12 Tournament. The 6-foot-1 forward scored five points in 7 minutes in her first game back against California then 12 in 13 minutes against UCLA. She is a 3-point threat on a team that needs perimeter scoring.
“It took some time to process,” Ruden said. “I wanted to be able to get the redshirt year back just because I’ve missed so much of the season and that was so hard for me. But it’s also really special that I’m going to be able to play right now and try to help this team especially for the seniors. Then down the road, I’ll be able to finish it out with the people I came in with.
“There was really no expectation because even if I would have not been effective, people would have said she’s been out for so long. It was kind of freeing to be out there and just fun. I tried to do the best I could.”
ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne thinks Ruden could play up to 15 minutes and be a factor against Michigan State. Although Ruden still is not able to fully practice, with her return the Sun Devils were at full strength during the Pac-12 Tournament for the first time since early December.
“It was more bitter than sweet because we all wanted her to get her year back,” Turner Thorne said. “Medically, they said they will clear you to play, but mentally you have to feel confident. She said, ‘Charli, if I can help the team, I want to play.’ Most kids would have been more about themselves, am I going to be good or play me, play me. That’s who she is.
“In the preseason, I think she was overthinking and playing really slow. The more awareness she got with things she wasn’t doing, the worse it got. Then, by Pac-12, she had worked a lot extra and was looking really good, and that’s when she hurt her foot (during practice). She learned while she watched and some of that she’s applied. She’s doing a pretty good job playing at the pace of the game.”
Michigan State, like ASU, is a regular NCAA qualifier. Its major scoring threat is senior guard Tori Jankoska, averaging 22.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. The Spartans’ starters also include 6-4 forward Taya Reimer, a grad transfer from Notre Dame who played against ASU in a 2014 NCAA second-round game.
Turner Thorne was head coach of the 2009 U.S. gold medal-winning World University Games team with Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant on her staff.
NCAA Women’s Tournament sub-regional
When: Friday and Sunday.
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
TV/Radio: ESPN2/KDUS-AM 1060.
Game 1: No. 1 South Carolina (27-4) vs. No. 16 UNC Asheville (19-14), 2 p.m.
Game 2: No. 8 seed Arizona State (19-12) vs. No. 9 Michigan State (21-11), 4:30 p.m.
Game 3: First-round winners, Sunday, time to be announced.