LAS VEGAS – Midway through the third quarter of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament opener on Wednesday against UCLA, Arizona State found itself in a similar position to its only previous meeting against the Bruins this season.
This time, the Sun Devils refused to back down.
Instead, in what would have been a monumental upset, they rallied throughout the third and fourth quarters to take a lead and have a shot at a game-winner before having to play an extra five minutes.
Though Arizona State fell 81-70 to the fifth-seeded Bruins in overtime at Michelob ULTRA Arena, the Sun Devils’ resiliency showed how much they had improved over the course of a difficult season.
“This is a group that competes to win,” first-year ASU coach Natasha Adair said after her team was bounced from the tournament. “We talked about winning time, winning plays and what we needed to do. We made some adjustments on how we were guarding their misdirection (and) handoffs, but at the end of the day, it was just fight, fight harder. Work harder, and they did.”
The Sun Devils, seeded No. 12, won both the third and fourth quarters against UCLA, something they did not do against the Bruins in their first meeting on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles. Wednesday’s OT loss was a major reversal from UCLA’s 17-of-30 second half shooting performance in February’s game that allowed the Bruins to pull away from the Sun Devils.
ASU’s defense played a major role this time, forcing UCLA to just 10-of-34 shooting in the second half and 0-of-8 from beyond the three-point arc. ASU junior guard Tyi Skinner had a game-high 26 points, while Jaddan Simmons notched a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Meanwhile, four players scored in double figures for the Bruins, who will take on fourth-seeded Arizona in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Skinner, who scored 13 of her 26 points in the second half Wednesday, mentioned rebounding in addition to the team’s resilience that paved the way to force overtime.
“I think we rebounded a little better in the second half,” Skinner said. “I think that helped and then we just didn’t want to go down without a fight. This team just has grit like (Adair) said. I’m going to fight until the end. We did come up short, but we’re going to live and we’re going to learn.”
ASU’s second-half rally exemplified the team’s toughness and improvement throughout a tough 8-20 season.
The Sun Devils were supposed to be a deep and talented team, as showcased in a 80-72 win at Grand Canyon to close November. Only three players played at least 30 minutes with Simmons being the only ASU player to play all 40 minutes.
However, injuries became the primary driver of ASU’s problems after that game and haunted the Sun Devils throughout the season.
Nearly two weeks after the win at GCU, the Sun Devils went into a December game against Stephen F. Austin with six players out due to injury.
They even had to forfeit two conference games in January against Utah and Colorado due to not having enough healthy players available.
In addition to the various in-season injuries, some players never got a chance to play. Returning junior Maggie Besselink and sophomore guard Morasha Wiggins, who transferred to ASU from North Carolina, both sat out the season.
Because of this, several players had to play different positions than they were accustomed to playing.
Adair said patience has been key in guiding the team through the season with a fortitude of injuries and with players in different positions than normal.
“If (Sydney Erikstrup) forgets to take the ball out because she’s now the four, it’s not on Syd,” Adair said of her junior guard.
Adair also told her team how key communication is with players in different roles.
“It’s just helping your sister out and as we talked about it as a team, if someone’s in a different role, talk to them on the court,” Adair said. “Make sure they understand what’s going on and what’s happening. But, everyone’s just stepping up and that’s what you do. We don’t hang our head and we’re just prepared and ready regardless of the circumstance.”
Several star players also needed to take on more minutes throughout the season, a task that continued in the first round Pac-12 tournament game. Simmons, freshman guard Taryanna Crisp and Skinner all played over 40 minutes. Another junior guard, Treasure Hunt, played 38 minutes.
Two more players, one of them coming off the bench along with the fifth starter, played at least 20 minutes with two other players playing five minutes or less.
It was a drastic difference from the ASU team last November that saw nine players play at least eight minutes against GCU with two bench players seeing at least 13 minutes of action. One of them was Crisp.
Despite a challenging season, there are major bright spots to build around. Skinner is one of them.
Skinner, who joined Adair in moving to ASU from Delaware, embraced her role as a primary scorer with great efficiency. She averaged 19.3 points per game, good for fourth on the ASU single-season scoring average list since 1979. She also tied Courtney Ekmark for second on the program’s single-season three-point list with 68 made shots from beyond the arc.
Skinner earned a place on the media’s All-Pac-12 team despite being an honorable mention among the conference’s coaches.
“I think Tyi Skinner has stepped on this Pac-12 stage and made a name for herself,” Adair said. “However the (coaches’) voting went, it went, but it doesn’t change that she’s on everybody’s scouting report as the player to stop.”
Her leadership also showed in prominent moments. In the win at Corvallis, Adair said Skinner took charge to make sure her teammates knew to keep the celebrations to a minimum on the court right after the win.
“She said we’ll celebrate in the locker room,” Adair said. “There’s more to do. And they did. We need to get used to this feeling and not the other feeling.”
Another bright spot from an otherwise dismal season is how the Sun Devils forced teams into turnovers consistently.
The Sun Devils forced less than 10 turnovers just three times this season and forced at least 11 turnovers in its last 13 games to end the season. Thanks to this, ASU won the turnover battle in 17 of its 28 games this season.
With her rookie coaching season in the Pac-12 complete, Adair came to appreciate coaching in what she calls the “best conference in the country.”
As for the future, Skinner made her intentions known swiftly after Wednesday’s defeat.
“I’m staying,” she announced.
She will anchor a cast of mostly returning players, assuming no one opts for the transfer portal. Even if that happens, though, next season’s Arizona State women’s basketball team is poised to have more experience than this season’s team.
First, though, players need to get healthy.
“There are still evaluations that I can’t even say as a coach that I’ve been able to make per player because there are some that have been injured and I don’t want to give a fair assessment of them until they are healthy,” Adair said.
As for the players who battled throughout the season, Adair said they helped lay the groundwork for seasons to come for the program.
“And for a very young group, a group with really one returner that has logged a lot of minutes, I’m just proud of how they have come together,” she said. “This is the foundation. We just laid it. Now it’s brick by brick.”