'We're not done': ASU women's basketball team eyes first-ever Final Four

The Sun Devils are two wins away
Posted at 3:28 PM, Mar 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-27 19:31:18-04

On Sunday, the fifth-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils women's basketball team beat No. 4 seed Miami in dramatic fashion to advance to its first NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen in four years.

ASU celebrated the upset win for the rest of the day. But on Monday, with top-seeded Mississippi State awaiting them in Portland, the Devils were back in the practice gym with an all-business mindset.

The Sweet Sixteen is nice, but it was never the ultimate goal.

"We’re not done," Charli Turner Thorne said. "That’s the message."

The Sweet Sixteen is nothing new to Turner Thorne, the head coach of the Sun Devil women's hoops program since 1996. During her time in Tempe, the Devils have gotten this deep in the Tournament five times, and they've advanced to the Elite Eight -- one step away from the Final Four -- on a pair of occasions.

The Final Four has continued to elude the Sun Devils. But Turner Thorne said there's no reason that can't change in a matter of days.

"It’s wide open this year. And could we get there? We absolutely could," she said. "In that sense, we believe in ourselves. We believe in what we can do. We just gotta do it."

ASU is still two wins away from that Final Four milestone. Its next task: beat top-seeded Mississippi State, which compiled a 32-2 regular-season record. Turner Thorne calls the Bulldogs "one of the toughest, most aggressive teams in the country." If ASU wins that game, it will face No. 2 seed Oregon or No. 6 seed South Dakota State on Sunday, with a Final Four trip on the line.

The Devils will be significant underdogs in Friday's matchup, which begins at 6 p.m. Arizona time and will air on ESPN2. But Turner Thorne, whose team lost a nail-biter to the Bulldogs last season, knows her team is capable of breaking through.

"It’s going to take probably the same championship defense we’ve been playing, but a little more championship offense," she said. "Just score a little bit better, shoot a little bit better. I think if we do that, we’ll be right there."

This year's Sun Devil team has experience on its side, as four of its five leading scorers are seniors. And while Turner Thorne has never coached in a Final Four, one of her players has been to two of them. Senior guard Courtney Ekmark, an alum of St. Mary's High School in Phoenix, transferred to ASU after winning national championships with UConn in 2014 and '15. She is the Sun Devils' No. 2 scorer this season.

"I’ve been to a Final Four multiple times, and I just want that for her, to be honest," Ekmark said about her coach. "I think that’s what makes it special, when you’re playing for something other than yourself, and I know our whole team wants it for her, too, because she works so hard and she’s an amazing coach."

Turner Thorne said Ekmark's experience has been invaluable during the Devils' current Tournament run, and throughout the season.

"She’s just a winner," Turner Thorne said. "She never takes a possession off. She has a championship mindset. She’s been bringing that every day.

"I think our whole senior class has a great sense of urgency, and I think the rest of the team really wants to play for the seniors. That’s a great kind of culture to have right now, and we’re just got to step up and get ‘er done."

Like her coach, Ekmark isn't content by simply winning a pair of Tournament games, only to lose a hard-fought battle to a top seed. The Sun Devils have been there, done that.

"(The Sweet Sixteen) is something we’ve been working for all year, starting in the summer and the preseason," she said. "But at the same time, we’re not done yet. We’re not just happy and (thinking) this is the end of our season. We’re still hungry."

This will be senior forward Kianna Ibis' first trip to the Sweet Sixteen, after narrowly missing out on that opportunity as a freshman. Now, with her final chance at the Final Four in front of her, the Sun Devils' leading scorer isn't about to let this opportunity slip away.

"It’s going to definitely take everybody on our team," Ibis said. "It’s going to take a lot of toughness because it’s the end of the season and everybody’s bodies are feeling very stressed and overworked right now. It’s going to take toughness to get through it."

Turner Thorne's teams have been in this situation before: the Final Four within their grasp, only to have it slip away against a tougher opponent. But she believes this year's squad is uniquely qualified to do what her other teams couldn't.

"The good thing is the experience is there. The toughness is there," she said.

"We know what we need to do. We just need to do it."