Women's Basketball Brings Experience and Versatility to the Court in 2000-01

Oct. 10, 2000

TEMPE, Ariz. - Sun Devil head coach Charli Turner Thorne has some high expectations for her team in the coming year as practice gets underway Saturday morning for the Arizona State women's basketball team.

2000-01 Women's Basketball Outlook

There is no substitute for experience.

While her 2000-01 roster features seven newcomers, Arizona State head coach Charli Turner Thorne will tell you that she has a lineup stacked with experience and talent. When you take into consideration that her group of newcomers includes two Division I redshirts, a junior college transfer and three high school standouts and add them to a squad that features eight returning letterwinners, the fifth-year Sun Devil mentor has a team ready to accomplish some lofty goals in 2000-01.

'Obviously there is a lot of excitement heading into this season because we have added more talent than has probably ever been added from one season to the next at Arizona State,' said Turner Thorne who guided the Sun Devils to the school's first postseason appearance in nine years last season with a bid to the 2000 Women's National Invitation Tournament. 'We are very excited about our tremendous influx of talent, especially when you add them to a very strong returning nucleus. I am also very excited about our depth. We have got to stay healthy, but we certainly have more talent and depth than we've ever had in my tenure at ASU.

'We feel like we are finally in a position to win a Pac-10 Conference Championship. We have talked about finishing in the top half of the conference, but with the talent we have coming in coupled with our returners, we really feel like we are in a position to compete for a Pac-10 title. Last year we competed with everyone, so the next step is striving for the consistency and killer instinct that a team needs to be in a position to win the Pac-10 Conference. I am very confident that our program is ready to do that in the upcoming season.'

One key to Arizona State's success in 2000-01 will be toughness. While the Sun Devils notched the team's most victories since 1991-92 last season, Turner Thorne's Arizona State squad looks to take the next step this season with the addition of veteran experience and toughness.

'Our toughness improved throughout the season last year, but I think that the experience we are bringing in combined with players who have been in the program will help us improve even more in that area,' Turner Thorne said. 'Last year, we didn't have the killer instinct a team needs to finish games against top opponents rather than just playing with them. While we were 11-3 at home, we weren't able to put people away at times on the road. I believe we now have a team that is ready and capable of doing this. I also think we recruited some players who are flat out not going to settle. They have that `nastiness' and feistiness that you need to be successful at the highest level of competitive athletics. It's not a matter of playing dirty, it's a matter of being the aggressor for 40 minutes. We are going to have a more aggressive team this year, and that could be the difference for us along with our depth and talent.'

THE BACKCOURT

Arizona State's backcourt epitomizes the combination of returning veterans and talented newcomers that makes up the Sun Devil team this season. Turner Thorne said she is excited about the versatility Arizona State will have in the backcourt in 2000-01.

'I think we are going to be very versatile as a team in the sense that we can play small ball or go big,' she said. 'We've got Natalie Tucker, Brett Leonard, Amanda Levens and Rainy Crisp who are smaller but tremendously talented guards, and then we've got Sarah Allen, Betsy Boardman, Aubrey McFadyen, Liz Paulson and Li'i Liu. We could have two of those players on the perimeter and go really big, so I am really excited about our versatility and our depth on the perimeter. That is something that hurt us last year.'

Headlining that group will be two-year starting point guard Natalie Tucker. Tucker looks to finish her career in style after leading the team and finishing in the top 10 in the Pac-10 in assists in each of the last two seasons. According to Turner Thorne, ASU's depth in the backcourt may help Tucker have the best season of her career.

'Natalie Tucker has obviously been a consistent and steadfast player for us. She is always in great shape and is solid on both ends of the floor,' she said. 'Natalie has worked hard at getting stronger in the off-season. I have had to overplay Natalie in the past due to injuries. I think we are now in a position to balance her minutes out, so she can have her legs under her for the entire season. Hopefully Natalie can be even more effective and aggressive because she is not having to pace herself and play 30-plus minutes per game as she has in the past.'Joining Tucker in the backcourt are sophomore Brett Leonard and junior Rainy Crisp who both look to capitalize on their strong finishes last season. A fiery and intense point guard, Leonard missed the first seven games of the season after major shoulder surgery but came back from the injury to play in 22 games and earn starts in seven Pac-10 contests. Now that she is healthy, Leonard, who came in as one of the most highly recruited point guards in ASU history, should show everyone what she can do.

'Nobody really saw what Brett Leonard was capable of last year because of her injury,' Turner Thorne said. 'She didn't have the opportunity to go through the preseason and learn everything. She came to ASU in phenomenal shape, but after being out for two months because of surgery, you lose a lot of that. I am really excited about the intensity and leadership that she is going to bring to the court. Brett can create shots for other people and be a good scorer in her own right.'

Crisp played in 22 games for the Sun Devils last season after sitting out the first semester as she completed her year of residency as a transfer from New Mexico State. One of the quickest players on the team and a perfect fit for Arizona State's defensive system, Crisp saw her minutes and productivity increase last year and worked hard on her shot over the summer to complete her game.

'Last year, Rainy showed that she could provide a spark off the bench both offensively and defensively. Her big challenge in the off-season was becoming a more consistent perimeter shooter, and I know she has been working hard on that. She can defend, push the ball in transition and pretty much do everything else. If Rainy can come in and knock that shot down on the perimeter, she's going to be successful.'

Completing that group of guards will be junior Amanda Levens who will be eligible after redshirting last year following her transfer from Old Dominion. Part of two NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances for the Lady Monarchs, Levens spent her redshirt year concentrating on her shooting and working to become more of a scoring guard.'Amanda is a player we have really high expectations for,' Turner Thorne said. 'She showed last year in practice every day that she was certainly one of the best players on the floor, and she has worked very hard at becoming a complete offensive player. She's also a smart and sneaky defender, and I think she will be someone who makes major contributions on both ends of the floor.'

On the wing, the Sun Devil squad features a cupboard full of experienced and young players. Seniors Aubrey McFadyen and Liz Paulson are the most experienced players at that position. Last season, McFadyen showed hints of the scorer that she can be with a 16-point performance against Oregon State despite being slowed by a broken rib that kept her out much of the preseason. Paulson provided an offensive spark with a deadly three-point shot last year for the Sun Devils but will miss most of the preseason after undergoing major back surgery in the spring.

'Aubrey is coming in off the best off-season of her career, so I am really excited about her potential to contribute in her senior year. I know she is extremely motivated and has been working very hard. Looking back, I still ask myself what if Aubrey hadn't cracked her rib and missed three weeks because I think those major injuries and setbacks don't allow you to have the season that you otherwise would have had,' Turner Thorne said. 'When you look at Liz Paulson, we're counting on having her experience, her skill and, particularly, her shot for the Pac-10 season. Liz knows the game and has great skills, and if there is any player who can come back off a surgery like that and still have an impact for us, it would be Liz Paulson. She's a fifth-year senior, so there is a lot of experience there.'

Sarah Allen returns for her sophomore campaign a grizzled veteran after starting 23 games for the Sun Devils as a true freshman. Just the third player in school history to be named to the Pac-10's All-Freshman squad, Allen averaged 5.4 points per game and established herself as one of the most deadly three-point shooters in the Pac-10 last year.

'Sarah had a great freshman year, but at the same time, I think she realized that she has a lot to learn. She has really just scratched the surface of her talent,' Turner Thorne said. 'We've been working hard on her mid-range game and conditioning and on having her become a consistent threat all the time on offense. Sarah had a great first season, and I am even more excited for her second year because she hasn't been sitting back saying how great she did. Sarah is as motivated as ever.'

Arizona State has also reloaded on the wing with the addition of freshman Betsy Boardman, a talented player who will compete for time on the court right away. Boardman comes to Tempe from Beaverton (Ore.) High School where the honorable-mention high school All-American led the Beavers to the school's first league championship.

'I would be very surprised if Betsy doesn't create a large role for herself in her freshman year because she has the talent and mentality to do so. She was consistently a clutch player in high school. Her team needed her to be great at critical times, and she was. When you look back at last year, we lacked some of that. She is a freshman and will have a lot to learn, but we are ecstatic about Betsy because of her completeness as a player.'

Rounding out the backcourt is Li'i Liu who comes to ASU as a walk-on from Rancho Buena Vista High School in Vista, Calif. Liu, who has the highest vertical jump on the team, will provide depth on the wing for ASU.

'We are excited about the enthusiasm and athleticism Li'i brings to the floor. Early on, she has shown that she can have a presence on the boards and score.'

THE FRONTCOURT

Versatility is also the name of the game for the Sun Devils in the frontcourt. While the Sun Devils have big shoes to fill in the form of departing seniors Rachel Holt and Kristine Sand, Turner Thorne is confident that her returning players and newcomers can pick right up where her graduates left off.

'I think we have a lot of versatility in the frontcourt,' Turner Thorne said. 'We have players who have a nose for the ball and understand the importance of rebounding. More than ever, I think our front line will meet the challenge of dominating the boards. I also think that our average size will definitely be a strength.'

Headlining the Sun Devil returners is Leah Combs who is healthy and ready to show what she is capable of accomplishing. One of the team's vocal leaders, Combs came on strong at the end of last season, leading the Sun Devils in three of the last four games and exemplifying the talent that saw her notch four double-doubles in her first eight games as a true freshman before being sidelined by stress fractures. Senior Kellie McDanal also returns for her senior year after playing in 10 games for the team last year.

'Leah's maturity and growth as a person and a player in the off-season have probably been greater than any player I've ever coached,' Turner Thorne said. 'I have visibly seen such a transformation that I am really excited about Leah's potential in the upcoming season now that's she's healthy and been able to train and progress. Leah came on very strong at the end of the season and has continued to build on that into the spring and the summer. Kellie has been a little bit more of a role player but has a great opportunity going into her senior year to step out of that if she works hard and has done the things she was supposed to do in the off-season.'

Arizona State will also benefit from the addition of junior Melody Johnson to its frontcourt after Johnson sat out in 1999-00 as a transfer from the University of Colorado. According to Turner Thorne, Johnson, who averaged 8.0 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in her final year with the Buffs, used her redshirt year to get better and better. Junior Nikki Swagger, who also redshirted last year after transferring from Colorado, will have to take the 2000-01 season off for health reasons but will attempt to return for her senior campaign next year.

'Melody Johnson really dominated in practice last year, so if she can pick up where she left off, we will not miss a beat in our low-post game,' she said. 'Melody is a strong, physical player who can score one-on-one in the post and be a tremendous rebounder. She has also worked hard to refine her perimeter skills. In the past Melody has been solely a low-post player, but she has improved her ability to run the floor and step out onto the perimeter.'

Newcomers Cian Carvalho and Jen Albert round out the Sun Devil frontcourt and look to make an impact in their first seasons at Arizona State. Carvalho joins the squad after becoming the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, while Albert comes to Tempe after earning honorable-mention All-America honors at Niwot High School in Longmont, Colo.

'Cian is a really exciting addition to our team because she epitomizes the toughness, physicalness and aggressiveness that we were missing down the stretch in games last year. Cian likes contact and will be an enforcer out there. She's going to provide a presence, not so much by her size but by the way she plays. That is necessary to be successful in our conference. You've got to be willing to play contact basketball in the Pac-10,' Turner Thorne said. 'Jen Albert is a post player who fits very well into what we do because she is very versatile. She's 6-3, but she runs well, she can shoot the three, and she can pass. Jen's enthusiasm alone is going to make her successful. She is just so ready to learn. She is the human sponge out there soaking everything up. Her smarts and work ethic are going to allow her to progress quickly and have a very successful freshman year.'

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