February 25, 2015

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State overcame a massive hurdle by beating Stanford at Maples Pavilion and added to it by sweeping the Cardinal for the first time in 30 years.

The seeds for the Sun Devils' breakthrough win - and subsequent rise through the rankings - were planted with last season's unexpected run, cultivated through grueling offseason workouts and spurred by a preseason snub.

Playing with breakneck speed and never-back-down scrappiness, No, 10 Arizona State is off to the best start in school history and has the inside track to host an NCAA tournament sub-regional.

Not bad for a team picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12.

''If you probably look at us, you probably look like the No. 7 team because we're not tall, we're not bigger than anyone or anything like that,'' sophomore forward Sophie Brunner said. ''But what people may not have realized is that we're a tough team and we stick together, and that's pretty tough to beat.''

Though undersized, the Sun Devils overcome it by playing fast, racing past opponents for easy baskets in transition and wearing them down with relentless pace.

Arizona State had a hiccup early in the season, losing to Green Bay in the Gulf Coast Showcase, but went on a tear after that, setting a school record by reaching 20 wins in 22 games.

The Sun Devils (24-4) rose to No. 10 in The Associated Press poll last month, dropped back after a loss to Oregon State and were back in the top 10 this week after sweeping the Southern California schools.

Arizona State probably won't catch No. 7 Oregon State, which has a two-game lead and beat the Sun Devils twice this season, but is in good shape to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

The Sun Devils have the opportunity after the university and the Pac-12 worked together to move the conference gymnastics championships from Tempe to Salt Lake City on March 21.

Keep from stumbling too bad against Utah and Colorado this weekend or in the Pac-12 tournament, Arizona State will host NCAA tournament games for just the second time in 18 seasons under coach Charli Turner Thorne.

''You look at us, we're undersized; we usually give up weight and height at every position,'' Turner Thorne said. ''We've a fast team, we're an athletic team, a very well-conditioned team and a tough team, and we need to utilize all of that. When we do, we're really good.''

The preseason brush off has helped spark the Sun Devils - just as did last season, when they were picked 10th.

Arizona State had a rough 2012-13 season after Turner Thorne returned from a one-year sabbatical and had to rebuild the program's status among the nation's elite teams.

The Sun Devils seemed to do that last season, when they returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 and beat Vanderbilt to reach the second round.

Arizona State's players went through a demanding offseason workout program, focusing on the areas that could help them take the next step this season: fitness, shooting, defense.

The Sun Devils, almost to a player, got stronger and faster over the offseason, yet when the preseason rankings came out, they weren't even picked to finish in the top half of the conference.

Arizona State lost its top two scorers from last season, Deja Mann and Adrianne Thomas, but had nine returning players and the experience from playing in the NCAA tournament a year ago.

The preseason prediction felt like a dismissive wave toward the desert to the Sun Devils.

''The (rankings) is what really got us hungry because we felt as though everyone saw us as an underrated team,'' senior guard Promise Amukamara said. ''We wanted to prove not only to the people who do the polls, but other teams that Arizona State is not a team to be playing around with.''

The wins over Stanford epitomize how far the Sun Devils have come.

The Cardinal have been the standard in the Pac-12 pretty much since Tara VanDerveer become coach in 1985 and had dominated the series with Arizona State.

That changed on Jan. 19, when the Sun Devils held on for a 60-57 win to end a 16-game losing streak to the Cardinal and win at Maples Pavilion for the first time since 1984.

Buoyed by that victory, Arizona State rallied from a 12-point deficit to beat the Cardinal 53-52 in Tempe on Feb. 6 for their first sweep of the series since before VanDerveer became coach.

''Not a chip, but how about 100,000-pound weight on your shoulder because it was the only venue where we hadn't won in my long tenure with the program,'' Turner Thorne said. ''The bigger victory is for this year's team, but for our program it was a big deal because we hadn't been able to get over that hurdle.''

Now that the Sun Devils cleared that one, they have their sights set on even bigger ones.

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