TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s not every day you hear a coach quote the Will Ferrell Christmas classic (yes, I said classic) Elf.
But the message of the film became a battle cry for the third-seeded Arizona State Sun Devils in their improbable come-from-behind 57-54 win over 11th-seeded Arkansas Little-Rock Monday night at Wells Fargo Arena.
So what was the message delivered after a disastrous first half? “Believe,” head coach Charli Turner Thorne said. “They had to believe,” she added even going so far to sing a few bars of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
Even after halftime, that level of belief wasn’t evident among many of the 1,891 fans in attendance after Ka’Neshia Cobbins’ layup put the Trojans (29-5) up 39-23 with 14:42 left in the contest.
But ASU (29-5), like they have on a handful of other occasions this season, fought back.
Sophomore Sophie Brunner asserted herself in the paint in the second half, scoring 14 of her 17 points after halftime. She also finished with a game-high 11 rebounds.
But it was an impossible bank-shot three-pointer from junior guard Elisha Davis with just over two minutes left that lifted the Sun Devils’ collective spirit. Davis’ trey pulled Arizona State within three at 50-47 before ASU would go on to outscore UALR 10-4 the rest of the way.
“Yes it was,” Davis responded when asked if that shot was the biggest of her career. “Believe. That’s all that was running through my head. That was God, though. That’s why that went in. That was God.”
UALR head coach Joe Foley agreed the shot was the ultimate turning point.
“I thought that was the difference in the game,” he said. “If she hadn’t made that shot and we get the rebound, then it might have been a different outcome. That was huge, right there.”
The 5-foot-3 point guard from Oakland didn’t rely on divine intervention with ASU protecting a three-point lead on UALR’s last possession, however. She blocked an attempt by Trojans point guard Alexius Dawn as time expired to preserve the win, sending the Sun Devils to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in school history and the first since 2009.
“I was just very, very focused on following my player and just being there,” Davis said. “And I felt comfortable (going for the block) because I got a lot of deflections in the first half and a few in the second half, I just kind of put my hand up and the ball went to it.”
Arkansas-Little Rock nearly pulled two big upsets in just their fourth-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. They knocked off sixth-seeded Texas A&M 69-60 Saturday, and led for the vast majority against the Sun Devils in the second round.
Despite the tough loss, the Trojans weren’t exactly despondent afterward.
“We don’t have anything to hang our heads about because we fought and we never gave up, and I couldn’t ask for better teammates,” senior guard Taylor Gault said.
Outside of Davis’ two enormous plays, senior guard Promise Amukamara kept the Devils in the game early, scoring 10 of her 17 points in the first half and hitting all three of her field goal attempts and four free throws in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the team shot just 12 percent (3-of-25).
In the second half, it was Brunner’s opportunity to take over. The sophomore had 14 of her 17 points after halftime, including nine in the game’s final nine minutes.
The Sun Devils were strong from the free-throw line, as well, converting 13-of-15 attempts from the stripe. The only two misses turned into offensive rebounds for ASU.
The first half. ASU looked jittery and timid on offense, committing 11 turnovers while hitting just six field goals.
Stat of the Game
After a miserable first half, ASU bounced back to shoot 53.6 percent in the second half.
• Arizona State head coach Todd Graham attended the game and was on his feet like everyone else in the contest’s final seconds.
• Brunner’s double-double was her sixth of the season and the 10th of her career.
• ASU improved to 8-2 this season and 20-3 over the last two years in games decided by five points or less.
• The Sun Devils are now 4-1 in NCAA Tournament games played in Tempe.
She Said It:
“We’ve actually been in this situation for those of you who have been with us through the season. That’s what we talked about at halftime. Especially in the last half of the season, we’ve had a lot of bad halves offensively. We got in there, took a breath and just said ‘OK, just slow down.'” — ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne
The Sun Devils move on to Greensboro, North Carolina for a Sweet 16 matchup against second-seeded Florida State (31-4) Friday night.
The Seminoles defeated 15th-seeded Alabama State 91-49 in the opening round before disposing of Florida Gulf Coast 65-47 Monday night in Tallahassee.