Best Friends Drive Arizona State (USA Today, Feb. 28, 2007)

Feb. 28, 2007

Best Friends Drive Arizona State Women's Basketball (USA Today, Feb. 28, 2007

By Greg Boeck, USA TODAY, Feb. 28, 2007

TEMPE, Ariz. -- As the go-to player on Arizona State's women's basketball team, Emily Westerberg has a breathless personality that emotionally charges her team.

As 'Crunchie' -- the nickname coach Charli Turner Thorne dropped on her -- Aubree Johnson has a take-your-breath away coolness that emotionally destroys opponents in crunchtime.

Talk about a package deal. Born 16 days apart in 1985, the senior forwards have led parallel basketball lives since they met a decade ago as 11-year-olds at an AAU tryout camp for the Spokane (Wash.) Stars. They grew up 15 miles apart and became best friends as juniors on the team when they pledged to attend the same college. 'It was both or none,' Johnson says.

They won two AAU national championships for the Stars and two each at separate high schools -- Westerberg at Central Valley High in Veradale, Wash., near Spokane and Johnson at Post Falls (Idaho) High.

They came to the desert together and turned around Arizona State.

The co-captains, best friends, roommates and soul mates, who bonded even closer after a family death in November, want to go out together as they came in -- as champions.

Westerberg, at 6 feet, and Johnson, at 6-2, have led the Sun Devils to three consecutive 20-plus win seasons and a 75-20 record the last three seasons. Arizona State made it to the Sweet 16 in 2005, lost in the first round last season and is positioned to earn a top-three seed or better this season.

'We believe we can be a Final Four team,' Johnson says. 'We know we can do it.'

Immediate impact

The Sun Devils have the résumé. They are seventh in the USA TODAY/ESPN Coaches' Poll, the program's highest ranking. They're a school-best 26-3, with one loss to Tennessee and two to Stanford, the Pacific-10 rival they are favored to meet in the conference tournament that begins Friday in San Jose, Calif.

They're versatile, deep (six players average 9.4 points or more) and unselfish, with an NCAA-best 18.9 assists a game. They are fifth nationally in shooting percentage (48.3%) and score 75.2 points a game behind a push-and-pass-the-ball offense.

Before Westerberg and Johnson arrived, Arizona State had two 20-plus win seasons and no NCAA tournament victories in two appearances under Turner Thorne, who took over the program in 1996.

'They've taken us from a program that turned the corner to having some winning tradition to being what will hopefully be a perennial powerhouse,' Turner Thorne says

Westerberg says she and Johnson knew nothing else coming here. 'We know how to win. Coming in here, that's all we really knew how to do.'

Turner Thorne first saw Westerberg play as a ninth-grader for the Stars. Johnson caught her eye two years later on the same team. No less than 50 schools were interested in them as a package deal, but they chose Arizona State over TCU, Washington, New Mexico and Santa Barbara.

Turner Thorne learned of their choice when she came for one final visit hoping for a commitment. The visit started at Johnson's home with Westerberg and her parents. After dinner, the two asked Turner Thorne questions about Arizona State and kept her in suspense when they took her on a scavenger hunt. That led to both their schools and finally ended at Westerberg's home.

There, Turner Thorne was greeted with a house decorated in Arizona State colors with a sign that read, 'Roses are red, violets are blue. We're committed to going to ASU.'

Both started only five games as freshmen but have been key players since. Both are enjoying career seasons.

This season Westerberg became the 17th Sun Devil to score 1,000 career points and is a Naismith Award candidate as the top female collegiate basketball player. She leads the team in scoring (13.8) and is second in rebounds (5.2), both career highs.

'She's our go-to player inside, our emotional leader and one of our best defenders,' Turner Thorne says.

Johnson is averaging career-high points (10.3 a game), leads the team in blocked shots (24), rebounds (5.6) and shooting (55.4%) and usually draws the opponent's best player. Turner Thorne says she's 'our Shawn Marion,' referring to the Phoenix Suns' do-everything All-Star.

Turner Thorne nicknamed her 'Crunchie' after Johnson made a difficult shot down the stretch that led to a win two years ago in a Pac-10 tournament game. (In high school Johnson had drained a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the 2003 state championship.)

Best friends forever

Westerberg and Johnson are rarely spotted apart. They room together, go out to eat together, belong to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and go to movies together.

'They bring out the best in each other in the most selfless way I've ever experienced,' Turner Thorne says. 'It's uncanny the way they have each other's back on and off the court.'

Their friendship grew tighter in late November after Johnson's 15-year-old brother, Jordan, died in his sleep of an enlarged heart while at the four-team Paradise Jam holiday basketball tournament in the Virgin Islands to see his sister play.

Westerberg missed two games -- both wins -- to attend the funeral and help her friend through the difficult time. Guard Reagan Pariseau also missed one game to be with Johnson.

'Everybody was right there,' Johnson says. 'Emily was there from the first second I found out and there when I cried.'

Westerberg says, 'I felt like my heart was being torn out.'

They have carried on. In May, Johnson is expected to graduate with a degree in kinesiology; she has a 3.62 grade-point average. Westerberg, with a 3.61, plans to graduate in December with a teaching degree. She is engaged to be married this summer to former Sun Devils offensive lineman Grayling Love.

Neither is considered a WNBA prospect, so their kinship on the court will end with the NCAA tournament. But that won't end their off-the-court friendship. They're still a package deal.

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