TUCSON - This is what I wrote with seven minutes left in the first half of Arizona State’s NCAA women’s tournament game against Utah: “The Devils beat the Utes to advance to their second straight Sweet 16.”
What’s that they used to say in the newspaper business? Oh, yeah:
ASU’s 34-19 first-half lead disappeared by halftime and, eventually, so did their championship dreams.
The Utes hung a 86-65 shocker on the Sun Devils, and while there are bright days ahead for coach Charli Turner Thorne and her program, this will be a long offseason.
ASU shouldn’t have lost to Utah Monday. Yes, the Utes are a No. 5 seed and, with a 26-6 record, legitimate.
But the Devils played in a tougher conference against better opposition. They had a homecourt advantage, playing in McKale Center before several hundred of their fans.
And there was that 15-point lead after just 13 minutes. The Devils were so dominant I was making travel plans for the regional in Albuquerque, N.M.
“Arizona State started so quickly, it sort of looked like they were going to make a statement,” Utah coach Elaine Elliott said.
Instead, it was the Utes who made one.
The change in fortune was so sudden and so overwhelming — Utah outscored ASU 67-31 in the final 26 minutes — that the Sun Devils still looked shell-shocked 25 minutes after the game.
“They really took it to us,” Turner Thorne said.
It’s not hard to decipher what happened. Someone put a lid on ASU’s basket. Perhaps the ghost of Lute Olson.
The Sun Devils didn’t score a point in the final 6:48 of the first half. They scored just five points in the first seven minutes of the second half.
After making 14 of its first 18 field goal attempts, ASU was 9-for-38 the rest of the game.
“They played great defense, but our offense became stagnant,” junior forward Emily Westerberg said. “I think you could see our heavy legs. We were just tired out there.”
Carrying around the weight of expectations will do that sometimes.
The Devils enjoyed themselves on the way to the Sweet 16 last year. There was no pressure or past performance to live up to.
But after winning 26 games and being ranked as high as No. 9 this season — the first time ASU was ranked in the top 10 in 22 years — the Sweet 16 invitation was supposed to be in the mail.
That’s a different kind of pressure, and Turner Thorne said ASU didn’t respond well to it against Utah.
“I saw a team just press when they (the Utes) made a play,” Turner Thorne said. “It just bothered us too much.”
ASU might have overcome its nerves — and poor shooting — had it controlled the glass like it normally does. But the Utes outrebounded the Sun Devils 35-25, taking away ASU’s second chances and its transition game.
“I don’t know that we would have beaten anybody tonight,” Turner Thorne said.
This was the end of the season for ASU but not the end of the line. The Sun Devils lose only three players, and Turner Thorne has a top-10 recruiting class coming in. ASU should be a Pac-10 title contender and an NCAA tournament participant for years to come.
“Someone asked me the other day if we didn’t win would we consider it (the season) a failure,” Turner Thorne said. “Absolutely not. We’re disappointed in our performance but in no way does it take away from the season we had.”
Maybe not, but on Monday night the ride home from Tucson was like so many other rides home for an ASU basketball team.
Long, quiet and full of regret.