We break down the women's NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16 begins on Friday.
TEMPE, Ariz.—In 18 years running the show at Arizona State, Charli Turner Thorne has built the Sun Devils into one of the top programs in women’s college basketball by signing big names and unknowns. But the biggest recruiting get of her tenure wasn’t a teenager, but a 33-year-old.
Amanda Levens had a storied two-year career as a Sun Devil—the Illinois native transferred from Old Dominion before the 2000-01 season—racking up All-American and all-conference honors. She set records and helped ASU bring home the inaugural Pac-10 tournament championship. Turner Thorne puts it like this: If it was a one-possession game with five minutes to go, ASU usually won with Levens on the floor. But Turner Thorne praises Levens mostly for her leadership. A tough, cerebral combo guard, Levens helped build the foundation of ASU hoops, known nationally as a defensive powerhouse. Levens led the Sun Devils to two NCAA tournament appearances, the first of seven NCAA bids ASU earned between 2001-10, including two trips to the Elite Eight. (’07 and ’09). She set the standard, Turner Thorne says, for all future ASU players.
So when Levens, then the head coach at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, watched ASU games in 2010 and ’11, she didn’t like what she saw. The Sun Devils were weak. ASU had a reputation for playing so hard and so physically on the defensive end teams often threw up ugly shots in frustration. When Levens watched from afar, that’s not what she saw. “It wasn’t what I remembered,” Leven says. “And it ticked me off.”
Turner Thorne, worn out in her 15th year, decided she needed a break. In a move that shocked women’s basketball, she took a year sabbatical during the 2011-12 season, handing the team over to then-assistant Joseph Anders. She spent time with her family (she and her husband have three boys), started a leadership academy and ran clinics overseas. She stayed out of the gym, mostly, except for frequent trips to Illinois to chat with Levens. ASU needed her back, Turner Thorne said. And when she offered Levens a spot as associate head coach, Levens again packed her bags for Tempe.
“I knew what a rock star she was,” Turner Thorne says of Levens. “I cannot overstate how important she’s been on this journey. She’s been a huge recruit for us—both times.”
When Turner Thorne came back before the 2012-13 season, she had to rebuild the program. The Sun Devils have spent considerable time “building the toughness muscle,” says senior guard Promise Amukamara. The team flipped tires and competing in push-up contests after grueling cardio workouts, as Turner Thorne and her staff preach playing through exhaustion.
Finally they’re back up to Levens’ standards. The Sun Devils swept Stanford in the regular season, a first for Turner Thorne, who played for the Cardinal under legendary coach Tara VanDerveer. And in perhaps the toughest year in Pac-12 history—the conference sent five teams to the tournament for the first time since 2005 with four hosting—ASU finished second.
Last week the third-seeded Sun Devils advanced to the Sweet 16 after a gritty, come-from-behind 57-54 win on their home floor. Arkansas Little Rock led for more than 35 minutes in the second round game before ASU closed on a 28-5 run, erasing a 16-point deficit and earning a trip to the Greensboro Regional.
“I felt elation and relief,” Turner Thorne said early Thursday from North Carolina. “It’s just so fitting for this team, to be here. A lot of the top teams in the tournament have had games like that, where you have to find a way to win. In 2007, when we made our Elite Eight run, we were a three-seed and we barely beat UC-Riverside our first game. Games like that can help going forward.”
Levens says that there is more to do before she considers taking another head coaching job.
“There are a couple things we need to get done before I leave,” Levens says. “Charli hasn’t been to a Final Four yet. I want that for her.”
The Sun Devils take on second-seeded Florida State Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET.
All hail the 11-seeds
Who says 12-5 is the upset to pick? Five double-digits seeds won first-round games this year, led by three No. 11s: Miami, UALR and Gonzaga. (The other two double-digits were Arkansas and Pittsburgh, both 10s). The only 11 still left is Gonzaga, which won its first NCAA tournament game outside of Washington state under first-year coach Lisa Fortier.
The Zags pulled a shocker in the first round, upending sixth-seeded George Washington. But the bigger surprise came two days later, when the Bulldogs beat Oregon State, a top-10 team most of the season, on the Beavers’ home floor, using a stellar midrange game from its three posts in the 76-64 win.
Gonzaga is led by junior Elle Tinkle, a 6’2” guard/forward who hails from one of the best-known basketball families in the country. Wayne, the patriarch, played at Montana then professionally overseas, and is now the head coach of the Oregon State men; mom Lisa also played for Montana and is in the Grizzlies Hall of Fame; older sister Joslyn played in three Final Fours at Stanford; and younger brother Tres is a top prospect in the 2015 class and will suit up for Oregon State next season.
Considered a facilitator instead of a scorer coming out of Big Sky High in Missoula, Mont., Elle Tinkle spent the offseason polishing her shot, lowering her release point and making sure her form was fluid. Clearly, it’s working: she’s upped her scoring from 2.1 last season to 11.9 and shooting 45% from the field (she adds 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game, too).
“I think Elle knows I’m very confident in her and I’m going to let her work through the mistakes to get to the good stuff,” Fortier says. “We’ve got each other’s back.”
That’s been the theme this season for the Zags as they transition under Fortier, a longtime GU assistant. The new staff has focused on acknowledging what former coach Kelly Graves (now at Oregon) did in building the program, but understanding it’s O.K. to start fresh. “We don’t want to negate what he’s done,” Fortier says. “But we also want to show this is who WE are.”
Gonzaga will now take a shot at Tennessee, one of the best programs in the history of women’s basketball. They might be the only double-digit seed hanging around, but they’re not the only midmajor. Seventh-seeded Dayton—which lost to Gonzaga 75-65 in Spokane in November—meets third-seeded Louisville Saturday in Albany after the Flyers stunned Kentucky on the Wildcats’ home floor.
Yes, UK was missing one of its best players (senior Azia Bishop was suspended by coach Matthew Mitchell for ''failure to uphold team standards”) but the Wildcats are known for suffocating full-court pressure, and Dayton survived despite 24 turnovers. It helps to shoot 56% from the floor and drain 11 threes. It’s the Flyers’ first trip to the Sweet 16, and a huge achievement for their program. But it’s also big for women’s basketball and a tournament in desperate need of parity.
“The men’s tourney is the most popular event in the country because everybody loves an upset, everybody loves to see David take down Goliath,” says Dayton coach Jim Jabir. “We’re starting to get there—and our game definitely needs that.”
Jabir says the game is growing, right before everyone’s eyes, in the postseason. He just hopes people are paying attention.
Best player so far: Morgan Tuck, Connecticut. Clearly, the redshirt sophomore missed the postseason. Tuck, a 6’2” forward, was out most of last year because of a knee injury and watched from the bench as UConn won its second consecutive title. Her numbers in the tournament have been stellar so far: 21 points, 7.5 assists and five rebounds per game. Oh yeah, and she’s shooting 79% from the floor.
Keep an eye on: Louisville, and senior guard Jude Schimmel. Turns out Schimmel, the younger sibling of All-American Shoni, doesn’t need her big sister to grab attention. Jude Schimmel was terrific for the Cardinals in their second round game, scoring eight of her 13 points in the final three minutes as UofL held on for a win. She also had six rebounds, five assists and two steals in the 60-52 victory. Generously listed at 5’6”, Schimmel’s quickness separates her from other guards, and she doesn’t need much room to get a shot off.
Prediction: Always, it’s Connecticut. And with the best all-around player in the country (junior Breanna Stewart), it’s tough to pick against the Huskies at any point this postseason.
Best player so far: Stephanie Mavunga, North Carolina. A 6’3” athletic forward, Mavunga can control both ends of the floor for UNC. She’s averaging 19.5 points, 12 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the NCAA tournament for the Tar Heels, and anxious for a meeting with rival South Carolina. It’s a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16, when UNC upset the top-seeded Gamecocks. In that game, Mavunga scored 13 points and snared nine rebounds and three steals. UNC’s problem this year has been consistency, not talent. A big game from Mavunga could mean the Heels are peaking at the right time.
Keep an eye on: Florida State and Leticia Romero. The transfer guard is averaging 12.5 points, 8.0 assists and 7.5 rebounds in the tournament so far for the second-seeded Seminoles, which have won 30 games for the first time in program history. If Romero’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because she was at the center of controversy last offseason, when Kansas State fought her transfer request. Her numbers make it clear why the Wildcats didn’t want her to go.
The Pick: South Carolina, with its dominant inside game and tremendous depth, should earn a ticket to its first-ever Final Four. Senior guard Tiffany Mitchell will make sure of it.
Best player so far: Samantha Logic, Iowa. It’s probably not fair to expect a triple double from the 5’9” senior guard, but she’s come so close, it’s hard not to wonder if she’ll get it done in the Sweet 16. Logic had 14 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Hawkeyes’ 75-67 opening-round win over American, then followed that up with a 12-point, seven-assist, five-rebound performance in the 88-70 victory over Miami. If Iowa is to pull an upset against second-seeded Baylor, Logic might have to have a triple-double.
Keep an eye on: Notre Dame is the top seed and pretty much penciled in for a championship date with UConn, but don’t count out fourth-seeded Stanford just yet. The Cardinal have been good this season in their biggest games (think an 88-86 win over Connecticut early, and a 59-56 win over Arizona State in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals). Senior Amber Orrange is one of the best defenders in the country, and has the speed to keep up with All-American Jewell Loyd.
Prediction: Notre Dame has won 19 in a row going into the Sweet 16. It’ll be at 21 by the end of the weekend. Watch for a big performance from point guard Lindsay Allen.
Best player so far: Bashaara Graves, Tennessee. The Lady Vols needed Graves to increase her production in the postseason with the loss of center Izzy Harrison and the 6’2” junior forward has done exactly that. Graves entered the tournament averaging 10.1 points and 6.8 rebounds, but through two games she’s totaled 45 points, 19 rebounds, six assists and is shooting 61% (17-of-28). If Tennessee is to advance to its first Final Four since 2008, Graves must continue to be scoring presence.
Keep an eye on: Gonzaga
The Zags, which are loaded with experience, are playing in their seventh straight NCAA tournament and their second hometown regional in the last four years. They’ve taken down two higher-seeded teams en route to the Sweet 16 and look similar to the 2011 team that made the Elite Eight as an 11-seed. Seniors Sunny Greinacher (13.5 points, 6.0 rebounds) and Keani Albanez (12.9 points, 2.4 steals) will try to keep Cinderella alive.
Prediction: Maryland seems to be the forgotten No. 1 seed—President Obama picked against them in the second round—but Laurin Mincy & Co. will change that when they book their second consecutive trip to the Final Four.