Michelle Smith Feature: ASU's Turner Thorne and Utah's Roberts talk the start of Conference season

Arizona State, one of the most decorated women’s basketball programs in Pac-12 history, has assumed something of a new role in these past few seasons…underdog.

As programs such as Washington, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State have moved into the elite ranks and into national prominence, the Sun Devils have maintained their status as one of the toughest matchups in the league, while not quite garnering the attention of the up-and-comers.

But the Sun Devils find themselves back in the national rankings this week, at No. 25 in the current Associated Press Top 25 poll after a strong opening weekend in conference play, a sweep of Colorado and Utah – which ended with ASU winning an 83-81 nailbiter – to push their record to 11-3 on the season.

“I’m kind of enjoying a little more of the underdog role,” said ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne, the day after her team appeared in the national rankings. “We have a small roster, we don’t have a ton of veteran players. We are just quietly out here doing our thing.”

Arizona State will face perhaps the biggest back-to-back challenges of the season this weekend, taking on No. 23 Cal (Friday) and then No. 24 Stanford (Sunday) in Tempe.

“We need to play defense, pure and simple,” Turner Thorne said. “We need to get back to being disciplined and working hard on every possession. We have shown some good toughness, but we rode on our talent last weekend and I don’t think we want to do that this week. We need to get back to some of the things we were doing.”

No one who knows Turner Thorne or Arizona State to respond in any other way.

But the Sun Devils, in addition to their usual defensive emphasis (they ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense), have a strong offensive team as well. Junior forward Kianna Ibis is the team's leading scorer this season and is coming off a career-high 30 points against Utah.

Sophomore guards Robbi Ryan and Reili Richardson, who have seen extensive playing time in their young careers, are contributing big. Ryan had 14 points against Utah. Richardson currently ranks No. 1 in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. Sophomore forward Jamie Ruden is averaging 10.8 points a game. A team with no seniors is getting valuable experience.

“People’s roles are really well-defined and it’s a really good group,” Turner Thorne said. “Our players know what to expect, we talk about what we need. We are young, but we are a mature team.”

The Sun Devils preseason schedule included matchups against Mississippi State, Florida State and Wisconsin-Green Bay. While they were all losses, Turner Thorne believes they prepared her team for the conference.

“We were very much tested in those games and we took a lot from them,” Turner Thorne said. “I really like this team. We didn’t play a lick of defense against Utah but we are scoring well, and that’s a big difference between this year and last year. I don’t know that anybody in the Pac-12 is younger than us. But this team is good and it’s getting better.”

Utes regroup

Utah (10-3) found itself on the disappointing end of that game on Sunday against Arizona State. It was the kind of game, that Utes coach Lynne Roberts knows, could have won her program some respect and recognition.

“For us to change how people think about us, we’ve got to beat a time like ASU in those moments and we have to win on the road,” Roberts said.

Her team will get their first chance in the Pac-12 season to do that, traveling to Washington and Washington State.

Led by senior Emily Potter, Utah is one of the top rebounding teams in the country. They rank second in the Pac-12 in rebounding margin, out-rebounding opponents by 11.3 rebounds a game. The Utes also rank among the top 3 in scoring offense (78.8 ppg) and scoring defense (58.5 ppg).

“I still can’t believe we are in the throes of conference play, because it seems like we are just getting going,” Roberts said. “We are more balanced, we have more pieces and, defensively, we’ve done a good job. The ASU game was a crusher and those games sting so much more than losing by 20. But it gave us some insight and it told us that we are moving in the right direction.”

Megan Huff and Potter are both among the league leaders in scoring and rebounding, together accounting for 26.8 points and 15.8 rebounds a game.

“I’ve learned that we are pretty good when we are aggressive and pretty average when we are not,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say that we’ve arrived, but we are better. This league is tough, but the beauty of it is, you don’t have to win them all to get into the tournament. As much as the ASU game stung, we can get that back and still be in a great position.”

Roberts chuckled at the idea that she took the Utah job two years ago as the league was turning into the nation’s No. 1 conference.

“Yeah, my timing was tough,” she said with a laugh. “To change perceptions, you have to change reality. If you want respect, regionally or nationally, you’ve got to earn it.”

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