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Sun Devil women's basketball anticipates stealthy return to dominance

Shane Dieffenbach Avatar
November 10, 2021

When the Arizona State women’s basketball team tips off against Northern Colorado on Tuesday, it will mark the first game in front of fans at Desert Financial Arena since March 1, 2020. In the 618 days since anyone’s seen them in person, the roster has undergone extensive change. It’s why despite being picked to finish eighth in the conference in preseason polls, coach Charli Turner-Thorne believes the Sun Devils can take the nation by storm.

“I keep getting asked, ‘You were picked eighth,’ and I think, ‘Well good’ because last time we were picked eighth, we won the Pac-12 Championship when we got picked that low,” Turner-Thorne said.

The Sun Devil women’s hoops” newly comprised roster features an influx of both talent and experience, strengthening the team’s defensive-minded identity. This year, Turner-Thorne says they’ve been able to return to the foundation of success following a tumultuous year.

Entering her 25th season as the leader of the program, Turner-Thorne has established a deep culture of success. Built off a strong defensive mindset and unbreakable team bonds, she’s become a staple of ASU athletics throughout time. Under her guidance, the Sun Devils won a handful of conference titles and made 14 trips to the NCAA tournament. ASU has made three Sweet-16 and two Elite-Eight appearances under Turner-Thorne, along with numerous other first- and second-round appearances.

While 2020 brought unique challenges for everyone, things were especially tough for Turner-Thorne. On top of having a small roster, season-ending injuries and Covid-19 related illnesses took their toll.

Most of the women hadn’t played together yet, and needed time to nurture those crucial bonds. Trust, the players said, was something they struggled with last season. Masks and social-distancing measures lended no hand in helping the team become more cohesive on the court, and the virus ravaged the team, adding to the stress.

One thing that last year did provide was ample opportunities for the young squad to earn valuable playing time and experience. Despite adversity, the team fought its way to a WNIT appearance. Now the Sun Devils have turned the page.

“We’re putting last year behind us, taking what we need to, and just bringing what Sun Devils do best,” senior Taya Hanson said. “We work hard, and we just bring it. Every game we’re relentless.”

In-game experience beneficial for young team

On top of having a small squad last year made up of only nine players, a majority of them were underclassmen. Five were freshman, three were juniors and only one was a senior. Many were put on the court for the first time at the collegiate level with little idea of what to expect, being asked to quickly produce at a high level. Because of that, Turner-Thorne knows the players have an improved baseline for what they can achieve without restrictions.

“The experience that this group got last year was great experience without the seasoned veterans around them,” Turner-Thorne said.

Turner-Thorne mentioned the ongoing struggles last year, calling it the hardest season she’s ever experienced. In addition to the team’s limited size and overall inexperience, Arizona State suffered another blow when Jade Van Hyfte went down with a season-ending injury in the first game of the year.

Because of the limited roster, freshman on last year’s squad racked up a ton of playing time in arguably one of the most difficult settings in which to perform.

One sophomore poised to have a strong year on the court is Jaddan Simmons, who is a Sun Devil by blood. Both of her parents attended Arizona State University. Her father, Jason, played in the NFL. Following a phenomenal freshman campaign, Simmons is excited to start working towards leaving a legacy of her own. Turner-Thorne said she has a legitimate opportunity to gain national recognition with other key players to assist on the court.

“She’s the first freshman since Jill Noe to average double digits” Turner-Thorne said. “She was everything and she had nobody around her half the season in terms of experienced players she could set up and she could learn from.”

Simmons is just one of the current sophomores who gained playing experience last season. Others include Syndey Erikstrup, Imogen Greenslade, Katelyn Levings and Maggie Besselink. Despite their youth, Turner-Thorne described them as a grounded group of individuals who stayed focused. It’s what helped them remain competitive as they pushed their way through the stacked conference schedule.

Turner-Thorne said that she expects Simmons to become a much more dynamic player with crucial players in supporting roles. She also said she was irritated that Simmons was snubbed by the Pac-12 All-Freshman team, especially since ASU was lacking any sort of depth. As seven of her teammates from last year’s squad return, they also have added a solid group of transfers.

Transfers allow for more versatile offense

One thing Turner-Thorne did in the offseason was attack the transfer portal hard. By doing so, ASU has rebuilt the roster with experienced players, adding depth to the roster. Since starting summer practice, the team’s leaders say they have seen exponential growth, both offensively and defensively.

“We’ve recruited some pretty awesome players that I’m very excited to play with, and it’s been awesome working with them this summer,” Hanson said.

One of those players is graduate transfer Mael Gielles, who played for Rutgers as an undergraduate. Last season, she helped the Scarlet Knights earn their highest seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2012. The six-foot-one forward has a strong presence in the paint and a keen eye for tracking the ball and snatching up rebounds. Using her size well, Gielles is aggressive and fights to finish the possession with a bucket.

Gielles, in addition to Van Hyfte’s return to the lineup, will help the Sun Devils greatly improve their rebounding statistics.

“Our team is so versatile, so I box out out, Mael goes and gets it. Kately Levings boxes out, I go and get it” Besselink said. “We don’t have a specific in-bounder or somebody running the floor. Anybody can be in that position and it just makes our team better.”

Another transfer expected to make an immediate impact is senior Jade Loville. Like Simmons, she’s also the daughter of a former NFL all-star, and the competitive mindset is in her blood.

Loville previously played at Boise State, where she was the top scorer off the bench her sophomore season. Last year, Loville set the school’s single-game scoring record with 40 points against UNLV. She also finished second overall in the Mountain West for scoring with an average of 17.1 points per game.

“We’ve got a lot more offensive threats, so people are going to play us and it’s going to be really hard to guard us,” Simmons said. “We have a lot of shooters now, a lot of people who can create and get to the rim.”

Loville was mostly a mid-range shooter last year, but she expects to be harder to guard this year as she’s increased her versatility. In addition to being an aggressive player who can get to the rim, Loville says she’s been working with Turner-Thorne on becoming more comfortable and confident from behind the arc.

“We have a lot of weapons on the floor at once. It’s just going to be fun to just distribute and score and defend with this team,” Loville said.

Moonlit Madness was a great example of the new life the team has leading up to the season.

Offseason grind resulted in tangible improvements

Turner-Thorne’s overhauled roster made its first official debut alongside the men’s squad at Moonlit Madness. At the fan-favorite event, the men’s and the women’s teams work together to compete in challenges like a three-point shooting competition.

When it came to shooting threes, the women were carrying their male counterparts in the challenge. Meanwhile, Besselink stole the show by drilling a half-court shot in the first contest, making her the only player to complete the task.

“That was a good glimpse of our improved offense,” Turner-Thorne said of the event. “You saw how well we shot the ball. Clearly, I don’t even want to reference last year but we were bad. We just were not a very good offensive team, but we are much improved, and hopefully that kind of got highlighted at Moonlit Madness.”

While players like Gielles and Besselink got a lot of attention, Turner-Thorne noted that she expects a number of others to surprise people this year. One of those players is senior Gabriela Bosquez. Turner-Thorne praised for her commitment and dedication to improvement in the offseason.

“She went home and added 15 pounds of muscle, lived in the gym, and she went from one of our people who might spot someone to our core rotation,” Turner-Thorne said.

While Simmons had an outstanding freshman year, Turner-Thorne is helping her take her game to the next level. In her own words, she’s expecting to have a breakout year for the Sun Devils.

“I think this year they’re going to have to really worry about me shooting it, like shooting behind screens. I think that’s just the main thing that I’ve worked on is my shot, and creating even more for my teammates,” Simmons said.

While Simmons is looking to contribute more on the court, Hanson is looking at how she can graciously step into the team’s position of mentor and motivator.

“Just be that vocal leader,” Hanson said. “Help my teammates get to the positions that they need to go. To help bring them up if they’re down, and be able to have those hard conversations with them as well to help them be their best selves they can be.”

Intangible factors like leadership and focus always fuel the rise or fall of a team. It’s why Besselink says they Sun Devils been working towards strengthening their relationships with each other. After spending so much time apart last season, the team took a bonding trip up to Flagstaff. Besselink said they’ve really been able to mesh, and she expects it to show on the court.

“We’re building relationships with this team 24/7, and it’s an elite team for sure,” Besselink said.

Former great brings focus back to program’s roots

Arizona State announced on Nov. 2 plans to honor former Sun Devil great and current WNBA player Briann January. January, who is a current member of the Connecticut Sun, played under Turner-Thorne from 2005-09 where she helped lead the Sun Devils to their first consecutive Elite Eight appearances. Her No. 20 jersey will be retired at at Nov. 12 game against Minnesota, hanging the oversized replica from the rafters.

While it’s been a few years since January actively suited up for Arizona State, she’s no stranger to the program. She’s stayed involved, even holding a brief coaching stint with the Sun Devils from 2017-19.

“Bri comes around when she’s in town, and always when our alumni come to town I ask them to speak with the team,” Turner-Thorne said. “I think they have a really good sense of her legacy and I hope it inspires them.”

Turner-Thorne hopes January’s presence around practice helps motivate this year’s team as it prepares to honor her legacy.

“It’s more about who we are than what we do. She’s an even better person than she is basketball player and they see that, and that’s what I’m the most proud of,” Turner Thorne said.

For Hanson, who earned Pac-12 defensive notice and All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention last season, January’s legacy pushes her to be better every day.

“Defensively, she was everywhere. As a leader, as a senior on this team, that’s what I want to bring to every single game, every practice. Just be that vocal leader,” Hanson said.

Hanson was one of the players whom January coached with the Sun Devils. For her, January’s upcoming jersey-retiring ceremony represents a significant moment for her as a player.

“(January) is a legend. She came here and all four years she worked her butt off. I’m just so proud of her and feel so privileged to have the opportunity to be coached by her. She just brings a level of intensity and passion to the game that I really needed that year that she coached,” Hanson said.

Turner-Thorne also touched on the tough mindset and mentality January’s teammates had while on their run. It never was about an individual, she said. The thought process always was about helping the team.

“To me, Bri is inspiring because she just is such an incredible leader,” Turner-Thorne said. “She has such great energy no matter what, whether she’s losing a game or is injured and can’t do something. She’s just someone who’s a real inspirational person.”

Tough schedule will put Sun Devils to test

Turner-Thorne has never ducked challenging opponents. She knows in order to rise back to the level of success Sun Devil basketball is used to seeing, they’ve got challenge themselves against tough competition and win against big-time opponents.

“I’ve been pushing this team because we do want to take advantage of a lot of games that could be signature games in November,” Turner-Thorne said.

In this month alone, the Sun Devils face off against perennial powerhouse Baylor and always competitive BYU. They’ll also face Marist, which made the NCAA Tournament, and Houston, which bounced ASU from the WNIT last season.

“I’ve been doing this a really long time, and this team, we don’t have any energy vampires,” Turner-Thorne said. “We have a good locker room, and I don’t think any tough game is going to break them.

“I think we just have a group that loves the game and is really committed to each other and being back to where our program is used to being, which is a championship-caliber team.”

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