At this time last year, Charli Turner Thorne had about as much bounce in her step as a deflated basketball.
Her Arizona State women’s basketball team had failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Even worse, Wells Fargo Arena was one of the sites for first- and secondround games.
It was a sick feeling, being a tourist in your own home, so the Sun Devils had one destination in mind when this season began:
A Sweet 16 appearance in the Tempe Regional.
Well, here they are. And how sweet it is.
"I don’t know if I could have sat through another NCAA event in my own arena and not participated," Turner Thorne said Tuesday.
No. 5 seed ASU will play No. 1 seed North Carolina Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena, and while the assignment might seem daunting, sometimes it’s all about location, location, location, and there’s no place the Devils would rather be.
They’re 25-2 over the last two seasons on their home floor, including a victory last December over defending national champion Connecticut.
A crowd of more than 6,000 is expected for Saturday’s game. That may not sound like much, but considering the Devils’ average attendance this season was 2,429, the noise will be music to their ears.
"To play on our home floor is definitely an advantage for us," said senior forward Betsy Boardman. "We’re thrilled. The whole experience is kind of surreal."
Even if ASU loses Saturday, the basketball program will have taken an important step in its evolution.
Turner Thorne slowly and painstakingly has rebuilt the program since taking over in 1996, when the Devils were coming off three straight losing — and dysfunctional — seasons under Jacqueline Hullah.
Turner Thorne didn’t fare any better her first four years, compiling a combined 22-50 record in Pac-10 play.
But ASU shared the conference title with Stanford in 2000-2001 and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. Since then, the Devils have had a winning record and gone to a postseason tournament every year.
But they had yet to take the next step — advancing to the Sweet 16. Now, the 22-year drought has ended — not a single player on this year’s team was alive in 1983 — and Turner Thorne has another selling point for recruits.
"This is uncharted territory for us," Turner Thorne said.
The Devils were tired but jubilant Tuesday as they got off the team bus at Wells Fargo Arena a little after 11 a.m.
Some of the players headed to class; others walked back to their apartment to sleep. Turner Thorne drove home to her three sons: Conor (6), Liam (3) and Quinn (1). ASU’s coach doesn’t have much family time during the season; she’s on the job seven days a week and traveling. But at least she had some great news to give the kids after being gone for five days. The "sisters," as the boys call them, are in the Sweet 16. "They’ll be thrilled," Turner Thorne said.
The celebration won’t last long, though. ASU understands this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, two home games to get to the Final Four. Why take a bite of the carrot if you can eat the whole thing? "I might be more nervous about a letdown if we had to go someplace to play," Turner Thorne said. "I really, really believe none of us are truly satisfied yet. I think we’re going to be pretty greedy."