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ASU Women’s Basketball: Winless weekend against Washington schools masks notable defensive improvements

Best in-conference defensive efforts could aid turnaround

Syndication: Arizona Republic Alex Gould/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Arizona State women’s basketball has not finished a full season with a winning record since 2018-19, it likely won’t again in 2022-23. Over the weekend, the Sun Devils dropped consecutive games at home to Washington State and Washington, leaving the team winless so far in Natasha Adair’s first tour in conference play as head coach.

The final record gets to serve last in the court of public opinion, and two more games in the loss column will not drive anyone on the fence about the state of the program and Adair’s ability to lead it into delivering a vote of confidence for either.

But if the Sun Devils are underwater this year, this weekend was the first sign they’re making positive kicks toward the surface since conference play began. Both losses were by a combined six points. In a gritty 55-53 loss to Washington on Sunday, the Sun Devils allowed the least amount of points in a game since a Nov. 11 win over Grambling State.

For the first time against major competition, that characteristic stinginess that had been synonymous with the program for years showed up on the court. Of course, the Sun Devils task stopping Washington on Sunday was made a little easier considering the Huskies are one of two teams lower than them in scoring offense (62.25 ppg), but the Sun Devils held Washington State nine points under its scoring average on Friday night.

The first words Adair spoke to reporters on Sunday invoked elements of confidence. “We’re putting it together, it’s just getting closer and closer and closer,” she said.

Adair was not bashful in laying out her vision for the Sun Devils in her first year. She wants her team to get stops, rebound, and get into the fast-break as quickly as possible. The Sun Devils played at a fervent pace in the first half against Washington, and led 28-24 at the break.

On Friday night, the Sun Devils forced 20 turnovers against Washington State. Then they did it again against Washington on Sunday. The initial components of how Adair plans to win games appear to be falling into place. The team is getting more stops, and as a result, getting into the open court more frequently.

“I thought when you look at the stats, 38 points in the paint, the goal was at least 30,” Adair said on Friday night. “20 points off turnovers. We were very aggressive. Second chance points, they got us there and that’s an area where we’re going to continue to work. But 13 fast break points, I thought we pushed the pace.”

Coming off the game cancellations against Colorado and Utah, the Sun Devils looked directionless. After an 80-67 loss to Arizona on Jan. 22, the yawning chasm between the Sun Devils and programs at the top of the conference was apparent.

This weekend, the Sun Devils had legitimate chances to come away with victory. If the team can build upon back-to-back strong defensive performances, the finer details will come into play.

At the top of the list is free-throws, where the Sun Devils shot just 66 percent from the line in both games. The four free-throws missed at the line was the difference against Washington State. On Sunday, four missed free-throws again hurt the Sun Devils chances.

“We are good at getting to the free throw line,” Adair said on Sunday. “We want to average 20-plus attempts, but we got there but we shot 66 percent. We’re a team that shoots over 70-percent from the free throw line and we just have to make sure we knock those down.”

The Sun Devils are now up to seventh in the conference in turnover margin (+1.79), and have a positive mark in that category for the first time in conference play.

For the Sun Devils to have a chance to compete against their in-conference opponents, the defense had to raise its level of play. Against the Washington schools, it did. The offense will have to solve its issues in the half-court and the team needs to get much better on the glass to take the next step and close games out. The Sun Devils were abysmal (-17) in rebounding margin this weekend, and remain the worst team in the conference in that category by a wide margin.

We’ll see if the defensive elevation was a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come this weekend, as the Sun Devils will travel to face USC and UCLA in Los Angeles.