The orange on the Tennessee jerseys has been as synonymous with women’s basketball as the ball itself, and that is what stands in the way for Arizona State returning to the Sweet 16. The second-seeded Sun Devils (26-6) host the seventh-seeded Lady Volunteers (20-13) at 6 p.m. PT Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Championship, with the winner advancing to the Sioux Falls Regional March 25 versus Ohio State or West Virginia.
While the Sun Devils are enjoying the highest seed in program history, the No. 7 is the lowest for the eight-time national champions, who lost all eight of their SEC games by single digits. ASU Coach Charli Turner Thorne said her team isn’t thinking about the history and is focusing on the present.
“As you’ve seen in our conference, things cycle around,” Turner Thorne said. “Every other time we’ve played them, they were top five in the country, so this is the first time we’ll play them when they don’t have one or two All-Americans on the roster. They’re just a great team, very talented, have a lot of great strengths, and we’re just getting our game plan together.”
Tennessee won its three previous meetings with the Sun Devils, in 2000 with Tamika Catchings, in 2006 with Candace Parker and 2010 with Shekinna Stricklen. Leading the current team are Diamond DeShields (14 points per game) and Bashaara Graves (10.2), who were both second team All-SEC.
For the Sun Devils, Arnecia Hawkins was named national and conference player of the week earlier this season, scoring a career-best 23 in a win over Florida State. The Mesa Mountain View High graduate, whose younger sister Armani is on the team, plays her final home game Sunday.
“I’m excited and honored to have another chance to play at Wells Fargo and making it to the next round would be a big deal,” Hawkins said. “I’m excited, but I don’t want to look that far ahead. It’ll be a good matchup for us.”
For Quinn Dornstauder, the 6-foot-4 junior center will be matched with Tennessee center Mercedes Russell at 6-foot-6. The American Russell defeated Dornstauder’s Canadian team in the final of the World University Games in Korea last summer.
“She’s a really talented player and it’s going to be fun seeing her in the college game,” Dornstauder said of Russell. “Keep your mind on the task at hand, it’s not about numbers and rankings, just play your best basketball.”
Kelsey Moos is second on the Sun Devils in rebounding, grabbing six per game. The junior forward was named all Pac-12 defensive honorable mention.
“They’re long and athletic,” Moos said of Tennessee. “It’s about us playing team defense and locking it down. Tennessee has always been a fantastic program, but we’re just focusing on this team right now.”
ASU has been to the Sweet 16 six previous times (1982, 1983, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2015), as opposed to 33 times for Tennessee. In the second round last year at Tempe, the team rallied to beat Arkansas-Little Rock, 57-54. Tennessee defeated Pittsburgh en route to the Elite Eight loss to Maryland. ASU and Tennessee have five common opponents (South Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon State, Stanford, and Syracuse), and Coach Turner Thorne compared Tennessee to California, as far as Pacific-12 teams went this season, with its athleticism.
“We respect everybody we play and show our team them at their best,” Coach Turner Thorne added. “We expect nothing but their best. Basketball is such a game of matchups, when you play somebody in November or December versus March, teams change and evolve. At this point, you’re completely scouted. We like teams that play six or seven and wear them down, and Tennessee plays a nine-player rotation.”