Sweet 16 and always been missed: ASU women hope to advance in NCAA Tournament

Senior Courtney Ekmark hopes to lead the Arizona State women's basketball team to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. (Photo courtesy Kaylee Woodward/Sun Devil Athletics)

By Sam Ficarro

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – The Arizona State women’s basketball program is in a familiar spot as it prepares for the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

For the sixth straight year, the Sun Devils have reached the second round, but for the last three seasons, the Sun Devils’ season has ended at this stage.

It’s the elephant in the room for Arizona State as it faces Miami Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16.

“This group that we have missed out on the Sweet 16 so this has been a little bit elusive for them,” ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said Saturday.

No one on this Sun Devils team was a part of the last team to make the Sweet 16, which was in 2015. The senior quartet of Kianna Ibis, Courtney Ekmark, Charnea Johnson-Chapman and Sophia Elenga will look to break through in their final run.

“I know one thing that’s sticking out towards the seniors is just breaking the streak of only getting to the second round of the NCAA Tournament,” Johnson-Chapman said. “We kind of want to go farther than that so we’re looking forward to it.”

As the lower seed, the Sun Devils have played tight games in the second round, including a three-point loss to eventual national champion South Carolina in 2017.

This has added to the hunger of the team.

 

“My past three seasons here, we’ve only gone to the second round and there are many times where we could have advanced,” Ibis said. “We were so close in the second game, and we have that little more sense of urgency and hunger for that Sweet 16 because I know all of our seniors want it, and I know all of our juniors want it.”

With the hunger and urgency also comes the pressure of the NCAA Tournament. Each round, the pressure gets ratcheted it up.

Considering the experience Arizona State has with four seniors and four juniors, playing loose has been emphasized.

“I think we’re always just playing freely,” ASU guard Reili Richardson said. “We know each other’s strengths and we know what we’re going to do as a group, so I think we just play to our strengths and help each other with it.”

“It’s very important because when people play stressed, they play tight and that’s when they make more mistakes,” Johnson-Chapman said. “So just making sure to be relaxed for the team and give our best for the team.”

Arizona State will face a Miami Hurricanes team that has defeated top-five teams Notre Dame and Louisville, earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the right to host Sunday’s game.

The Hurricanes feature two highly productive post players in 6-foot-3 center Emese Hof and 6-4 forward Beatrice Mompremier.

Both players combined to average 31.5 points per game and 20.2 rebounds per game this season. While this is the first time the two teams have met since 2014, the Sun Devils have faced post players of Hoff and Mompremier’s caliber.

“It feels a little bit like Baylor, with the Twin Towers (6-7 center Kalani Brown and 6-4 forward Lauren Cox) and two really good posts, very versatile, play really well together,” Turner Thorne said. “It’s ironic (because we played them the) first week of the season and it’s kind of come full circle. Even just Oregon, other teams in the conference with really good inside games.

“I think we’ll be ready as best we can. You are just going to contain. They’re very good.”

Arizona State is 3-0 all-time against the Hurricanes, sweeping a home-and-home series in 2013 and 2014. The Sun Devils hope to make it 4-0 Sunday and not leave anything on the floor.

“You don’t want to have any regrets,” Elenga said. “Just go for it.”