Arizona State’s advancement to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 might have shocked many.
Not their head coach, however.
In her opening comments to the media the day before they take the court against top-seeded Mississippi State, longtime Sun Devil coach Charli Turner Thorne said her team is right where she envisioned them: in the Portland regional, vying for an Elite 8 spot.
“Well, we’re obviously very excited to be here, but I guess I would just say we’re not surprised,” Turner Thorne said. “I mean, we definitely have had a great season. We have a team that’s played toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country consistently from November till March, really.”
Arizona State finished the season 22-10, with eight of those losses at the hands of Pac-12 opponents, giving them a fifth-place finish. But in downing UCF and upsetting Miami to reach the NCAA Tourney’s third round, the 22nd-year coach guided her team to a school record six straight Tournament appearances, for 18 in the last 19 years. She is the most winning coach in school history and No. 2 in the conference, behind her former coach at Stanford, Tara VanDerveer.
Year in and year out, Turner Thorne’s consistency comes regardless of what players are on her roster. Unlike the other three teams in Oregon this weekend, the Sun Devils don’t necessarily have a star or a standout who commands the spotlight. And they usually don’t.
What they do have are two starters who average low double-figure scoring, and a team full of contributors. No one rebounds in double-digits, and one starter dishes over five assists per game.
They make their living on their relentlessness and stingy defense, which they used to sweep the Pac-12 season series with No. 9 Oregon State.
“When you’re shooting 30-some percent, end up in the Sweet 16 somehow, some way, because you’re tough and gritty, you’ve got a pretty good defense,” Turner Thorne said.
Arizona State can never be counted out even when players are injured, as they were for a short time this season, because others step up. And early-schedule stumbles don’t matter, as Turner Thorne keeps pushing her squad to improve.
“Now one of the biggest things is we play for the entire 40 minutes,” senior forward Courtney Ekmark said of the team’s strides this year. “If we do that, we’re going to be really hard to beat.”
“Charli has definitely helped us be able to do that. I think she’s been able to do that by being honest in practice every single day, not to take a possession off in practice. Whatever happens in practice is what translates to the game.”
Sun Devil great and WNBA star Briann January, who returned to be an assistant coach two years ago, said Turner Thorne is “masterful” at her craft because of her caring and attention to detail.
“What makes it special is her ability to form relationships with the kids,” January said. “You don’t see that a lot. She knows each player so well. She has individual meetings with each player every week. Every time they come into the office, they sit down, they talk, and that helps her know how to motivate each and every one of them.”
Turner Thorne leaves no stone unturned in her stewarding her athletes.
“She puts in more time than I’ve ever seen a coach put in,” January said. “And for me, watching from her, learning from her, I know why she’s so successful. It’s because she puts in the work. There’s no secret, no special powers. She puts in the time, the effort and the energy. She studies her kids, she studies the game, and she puts them in positions to be successful.”
January said Turner Thorne spends a lot of time thinking about what she’s going to say in pre-game talks, sends inspirational team text messages, and watches out for players on and off the court, as well as in the classroom.
“It starts at the top, and the kids know how much she cares about and loves this program by the work she puts in, and they want to do the same for their teammates,” January said.
Turner Thorne, however, gives Arizona State players kudos for their strong season finish.
“I don’t credit myself. I credit this team for being where they’re at right now,” she said. “They’re totally selfless. They have not made it about me the entire year. I think that allows you to get better, allows you to pull together.”
Ekmark, however, said the Sun Devils’ “team first” approach is inspired by their coach.
“Charli is definitely motivating us,” Ekmark said. “It’s definitely good for our team because when we’re playing for each other, playing for our coaches, we’re not playing for ourselves, and that’s when something really special can happen.”
Turner Thorne’s high expectations never waver during a season, no matter the struggles that the team might encounter. She said Arizona State has experience and depth, and has a good chance to get by Mississippi State tonight if they play great offense.
“I think if you’re preparing to play us, you don’t underestimate us,” she said. “I think maybe around the country if you’re not paying attention, maybe you do.”
The Sun Devils and Bulldogs tip off at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN2.