(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
The outcome was decided within the first minute of the opening quarter, 2-seed Arizona State (26-6) was going to win their opening round game against 15-seed New Mexico State (26-5).
The person who made that decision? Senior guard Katie Hempen.
The Sun Devils fed the ball to a wide-open Hempen on their opening possession, who then knocked down a three-pointer to get the scoring going.
She wasn’t done, though. On the ensuing ASU possession, Hempen found herself wide-open yet again and fired off another long ball, finding the bottom of the net to give ASU a quick 6-0 lead and open the flood gates for what would be a dominating first round performance for the Sun Devils.
Hempen never let the pressure off as she led all scorers with 20 points, going 7-for-8 from the floor and leading ASU to an easy 74-52 win over the NMSU Aggies.
Hempen’s lethal three-point shot was on display tonight as she was a perfect 6-for-6 from long range, tying an NCAA tournament record for best percentage from behind the arc with at least five shot attempts.
“It felt really good, but honestly I just have to give props to my teammates,” Hempen said of her performance. “They helped me a lot to get open. We have all different types of threats on our team, so the fact that [Arnecia Hawkins] or [Sabrina Haines] can drive into the basket and draw two people and kick it back out, it makes my life a lot easier.”
Hempen was right, it wasn’t just her performance that fueled the Sun Devils’ monster performance.
Senior point guard Elisha Davis chipped in with 13 points and six assists as the Sun Devils had one of their best offensive performances of the year at 52.6 percent from the floor.
ASU’s 74 points were about 10 higher than their season average of 63.8 points per game, but that didn’t tell the whole story. The Sun Devils clearly eased off in the fourth quarter, and had they not, they might’ve gone for 100.
“We really wanted to start strong,” said ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne. “We really hadn’t started strong for a couple games but I thought we came out and really threw the first punch, kinda set the tone.”
The Aggies were clearly overmatched from the very start, as the Sun Devils took advantage of some lackadaisical defense to build a 10-3 lead after two minutes of play.
Behind Hempen’s hot shooting and some stark defense, ASU jumped out to a 22-13 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Sun Devils were able to hold NMSU to an abysmal 25 percent from the floor in that first quarter, and things never really improved much for the Aggies. When all was said and done, the Aggies wound up with a subpar 33.9 percent shooting efficiency.
“ASU Sun Devil women’s basketball defense is pressure,” Hempen said. “We try our hardest not to give one free bounce or one free touch.”
The Aggies had trouble finding any room to work with against a Sun Devils defense that was second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense.
They turned the ball over 21 times, allowing ASU to get out in transition with ease and get quick buckets. The Sun Devils wound up outscoring the Aggies 26-8 in points off turnovers, a major determining factor in the final outcome.
“That was all Arizona State’s pressure defense,” said NMSU head coach Mark Trakh. “They just went out there and took it…Hats off to them, they really just kicked our butts.”
The only player on NMSU’s roster that found any success was Sasha Weber, who scored a team-high 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
Despite having a successful defensive game, Davis made it clear that she wasn’t satisfied.
“Even though we did force 21 turnovers and had a really good jump initially in the game, we got relaxed,” Davis said. “We got comfortable and we didn’t sustain it, so we have to get better in that aspect. We forced 21 turnovers, but we could’ve forced more.”
Now that they’ve earned a decisive round one win in the NCAA tournament, the Sun Devils next challenge will be the 7-seed Tennessee Volunteers, who defeated 10-seed Green Bay 59-53 in the earlier game of the Tempe sub-regional.
“They’re like a Pac-12 team,” Turner Thorne said of Tennessee. “It’ll be more normal. It was weird with [NMSU] being smaller and more spread out. I think we’ll be more at home.”
The Volunteers, normally a top seed in the NCAA tournament, have had a subpar season by their standards, but are led by guard Diamond DeShields, a player capable of scoring from anywhere on the court.
“I think that our mission is to wear Tennessee down,” Hempen said. “Tennessee is a great program, they have great history, legacy, anything you can think of, but it’s going to be a really tough battle on Sunday.”
Player of the Game: Katie Hempen
This was Katie Hempen’s best game of the season. I struggle to say that after her amazing record-breaking game against UCLA earlier this year, but her efficiency against NMSU was undeniably great.
She was 7-for-8 from the floor with a 6-for-6 mark from long range, tying an NCAA record for best three-point percentage with at least five attempts. She also broke the school record for three-pointers in an NCAA tournament game.
Hempen worked to get open throughout the night and made it count when her teammates were able to get her the ball, effectively letting the rest of the NCAA tournament know that she is one of the most lethal shooters in the entire country when she’s hot.
Stat of the Night: 40-26
40-26 was the difference in points in the paint in this game, with ASU taking the advantage. While Hempen’s barrage of three-pointers led the way for the Sun Devils, they were also able to work the ball inside and get easy paint touches.
On the other end, they were able to shut down the Aggies, allowing them to gain a distinct advantage on the inside.
ASU will take on 7-seed Tennessee in Tempe at Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday. The game will tip-off at 6pm local time and will be airing on ESPN2.