ASU women’s basketball will play in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015. For everyone but one player, it will be their first appearance in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
The same cannot be said for their opponent. ASU will face No. 1 seed Mississippi State, the defending tournament runner-up and the fifth top-10 school the Sun Devils will have faced this year.
The Bulldogs represent a unique obstacle. Not only do they score the second most points in the country, they also allow fewer per game than ASU at 57.5.
“They might be the best defensive team we face all year,” coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “It’s one thing when a team scores 80 points because we have that championship level defense, but on offense, when a team can really guard us, that’s going to be the challenge.”
Turner Thorne has referred to her offense as yet to have “clicked on all cylinders” before, but it must play a smart, limited turnover game against such a well-rounded opponent.
MSU’s offense has yet to score fewer than the 65 points in a contest. ASU scores 65.8 on average. Mississippi State has a balanced attack with excellent 3-point shooting at 37 percent along with good passing and limited turnovers.
It also gets inside effectively. The Bulldogs’ 6-foot-7 inch center, Teaira McCowan, and forward Anriel Howard do the bulk of the team’s scoring at 34.8 combined points per game, much of which comes at the rim.
Jokingly, Turner Thorne called the matchup a ‘UFC’ fight.
“They are a very aggressive physical team,” Turner Thorne said. “Everybody says how aggressive we are. We don’t feel like we are, but we better get there quick because it will be on.”
Unlike ASU’s first two games this tournament, the Devils have had recent experience against the Bulldogs. Arizona State faced MSU in November of 2017 and suffered a hard-fought 65-57 loss.
Mississippi State was better from deep and less prone to turnovers a year ago, yet Turner Thorne’s squad held the lead going into the fourth quarter.
“We played them last year; it was a close game,” Turner Thorne said. “We didn’t particularly play well at all. Just having that familiarity, it helps.”
Arizona State shot horridly at 36 percent from the floor that day, but its defense and bench depth kept it in the game until the end. The bench is now deeper and coming off of a huge performance against Miami (it outscored the starters). The defense has been constantly battled tested with ASU’s schedule.
No. 1 Baylor amasses 81 points per game, yet it scored just 65 against the Sun Devils. No. 5 Louisville puts up over 78 per contest, but ASU only allowed it 58. Arizona State held No. 6 Stanford and No. 7 Oregon under their respective averages twice this season.
In all of those games except for one, the underdog ASU lost by single-digit points.
“We’ve been in one of the best conferences, the Pac-12, and we’ve played against top-10 teams back-to back-many times,” senior Kianna Ibis said. “It will come down to our defense.”
Opening tip between the Sun Devils and Bulldogs is Friday at 6 p.m. in Portland, Oregon.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.