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ASU women’s hoops confident despite key player losses

Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne yells to her players during the first half of a first-round women's college basketball game against New Mexico State in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

TEMPE, Ariz. – With Kianna Ibis, Courtney Ekmark, Charnea Johnson-Chapman and Sophia Elenga gone from Arizona State’s 2019 NCAA Sweet 16 team, Sun Devil women’s basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne knew this season’s team would be different.

But also fast and familiar.

Turner Thorne said the Sun Devils will be a more perimeter-oriented team this season, and will have to shoot the ball well to succeed. She added, though, that the Sun Devils are deeper, especially at the guard position, which will allow them to play a more typical ASU style.

“The fun thing about this team is we are just getting back to our teams that play fast, more aggressive and full-court defense,” Turner Thorne said. “I love last year’s team, but we were just different. We had to modify some of the things that we did.

“I am just excited for our athleticism and all that we can do this season. We are also small. We are a pretty small (team), so we are playing some small ball this year. I have had some great small-ball teams, so I am OK with that.”

Turner Thorne had her first opportunity to test the new-look lineup on Tuesday night against Air Force at Desert Financial Arena. ASU finished last season 22-11 and upset Miami (Florida) in Coral Gables, to advance to the Sweet 16, where the Sun Devils lost to top-seeded Mississippi State. 

But the Sun Devils have gone through a significant roster makeover. 

ASU lost 55 percent of its scoring and 56 percent of its rebounding from last season, including Ibis, who led the team in scoring with 14.1 points a game and averaged 6.3 rebounds.

As this season’s journey begins, senior guard Robbi Ryan – the team’s top returning scorer at 7.2 points per game – is ready to get started.

“We are really excited,” Ryan said. “We have a lot of talented newbies with the freshmen, and then Ja’Tavia (Tapley) coming from USC, and obviously the returners. … We are improving every day and I am excited to see what the season holds.”

With so many post players gone from last season, Turner Thorne said signing Tapley as a graduate transfer center from USC was critical. Tapley averaged six points and five rebounds per game last season for the Trojans.

Tapley knows where she can impact ASU the most this season.

“With rebounding, for sure,” Tapley said. “But I will also be able to play off the dribble, as well. I am quick, as well, with my height and my length, so I can get to the basket and I can open up the floor or I can spread out the floor. I’m able to dribble and bring other bigger centers out and play smaller, which is what I want to do and like to do.”

Tapley will provide a much-needed boost as a newcomer, along with freshmen forward Eboni Walker, who was a five-star recruit, guard Sara Bejedi from Finland and guard Sydnei Caldwell. Turner Thorne added that, for the freshmen, the “football playbook” that ASU has will be an early challenge.

Turner Thorne and her team have raved about this freshman class, but Walker has been the most highly-praised from the group and could very well find a place in the starting lineup.

“They all bring a lot to the table,” Ryan said.

As in previous seasons, the Sun Devils will lean on a senior class that includes Reili Richardson, Kiara Russell, Jamie Ruden, Ryan and Tapley. Other than Tapley, all of the seniors are four-year players in Tempe. 

Ryan couldn’t stop smiling when asked about her final season, saying she is extremely excited for a last go-around with her senior class. Turner Thorne said she knows that it is a senior group hungry to improve and do something special.

“These guys came in from, really day one, and they got to play,” Turner Thorne said. “I will just echo it, again: There is nothing they haven’t seen. They have played the No. 1 team on their home floor. They have just done it all with big crowds. I feel really confident about that. They are excited and they are hungry, and they have a great sense of urgency.”

ASU will have a challenging schedule, including a matchup at No. 23 Minnesota, the Florida Gulf Coast Showcase tournament and the daunting Pac-12 slate where No. 1 Oregon, No. 3 Stanford, No. 7 Oregon State, No. 11 UCLA and Arizona, the National Invitational Tournament champion, await.

The Sun Devils are ranked 20th, but Turner Thorne said preseason rankings don’t really matter.

“I think that we are a top program in the country,” Turner Thorne said. “I think we should get recognized. We graduated (so much) of our scoring and our rebounding, and there are a lot of people that just look at that. Whereas, I think most people that really follow women’s basketball know our roster and how much talent we have. 

“They also know just our program, (that) no matter what, we are going to come back next season and we are going to be tough, and we are going to find a way to win and win a lot. I like it because it is like our team. 

“We are good, but we have a lot of room to grow.”

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