TEMPE, Ariz. — Moments after the NCAA Selection Show had ended a week ago, Arizona State women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne put the program’s first No. 2 region seed in perspective.
While Turner Thorne was elated that the Sun Devils’ two-game losing streak hadn’t cost it in the eyes of the selection committee, she also tabbed the Tempe sub-regional the toughest draw of any No. 2 seed because perennial power Tennessee was lying in waiting in the round of 32.
Turner Thorne’s fears proved valid on Sunday at Wells Fargo Arena. No. 7 seed Tennessee had more height than the Sun Devils, Tennessee had more length than the Sun Devils and Tennessee had more athleticism than the Sun Devils. The only thing the Lady Vols lacked earlier this season, experience, was a moot point by the time they hit the court in Tempe.
Vols sophomore guard Diamond DeShields had a game-high 24 points, Tennessee outrebounded the Sun Devils 36-30 and the Lady Vols (21-13) reached the Sweet 16 for the seventh straight season with a 75-64 win over ASU (26-7).
“For us, probably the worst matchup we could possibly have asked for,” Turner Thorne said. “Give them credit. They are pulling it together. They are playing their best basketball right now.”
Tennessee’ starting five on Sunday featured three sophomores, a junior and a senior. The two subs who played the most minutes were junior Andraya Carter and freshman Te’a Cooper.
ASU did a credible job of limiting 6-6 sophomore post Mercedes Russell after the first quarter, but the Devils never had an answer for DeShields or the Vols’ guards, who kept attacking the defense and finding the path to the lane easier than past editions of the Devils defense would have allowed.
“We don’t really have a stopper,” said Turner Thorne, whose one key loss off last season’s team, Promise Amukamara, filled that role. “Obviously basketball is a game of matchups, so matchup-wise it was like, ‘bummer, okay. Maybe not the best one for us.'”
ASU clawed its way back to a 33-33 halftime score with the same brand of gritty defense that got it this far, but the Sun Devils couldn’t pressure the ball the way they normally do because of DeShields and the Vols’ ability to get up and down the floor so quickly.
With five of their key players standing 6-1 or taller, the Vols had their way with ASU in the paint, but Tennessee also did something that New Mexico State could not in the first round, it took 3-point sharpshooter Katie Hempen out of the game by running her off her spots and forcing her to shoot off balance.
Hempen, who led the Devils with 20 points in the first round, shot just 1 of 5 from the floor and finished with three points.
“When she hit her first three, I got a little nervous because we didn’t want her to go off on shooting three pointers,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, whose team will face No. 3 seed Ohio State on Friday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “That was our focal point, to not let Katie get in a rhythm. If they were going to beat us, it was going to be somebody else besides her.”
The defeat gave ASU three losses in its final four games the season. It also prevented the Sun Devils from reaching the Sweet 16 in back-to-back years for the first time under Turner Thorne.
When the game ended, ASU senior guard Elisha Davis lingered on the court to soak in one last experience.
“There’s not another practice. We’re not going to meet tomorrow and go over correctibles. We’re not going to do the little things — we’re not going to ice bath. We’re not going to talk about what’s the plan, the itinerary, for next week going into the Sweet 16 or anything like that,” she said. “It’s over, literally, and I don’t have another year to have another home game here or to be in front of the Sun Devil Nation.”