(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
In sports, one of the most important and most sought after aspects of a team is experience.
A roster laden with experienced players is vital to a team’s success. It provides leadership, maturity and a “been there, done that” attitude that all coaches love to have on their team.
When it comes to No. 9 Arizona State, the 2015-16 season has been all about its experienced roster.
After returning nine players from a 2014-15 team that finished with a 29-6 record and made an appearance in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, this ASU team was predicted from the beginning to have one of its best seasons to date, and these Sun Devils have not disappointed.
The Sun Devils currently sit at 23-4 with a 14-1 Pac-12 record, keeping them tied for the top spot in the conference with No. 7 Oregon State. For the second consecutive season, they’ve swept perennial conference champion Stanford in the regular season and have achieved goals many would not have thought possible for a team that finished with a 13-18 mark just three years ago.
On Sunday, the Sun Devils will celebrate their Senior Day game against the Washington Huskies, their final home game of the regular season slate, and with five seniors on the roster, it will certainly be a day to remember in Tempe.
“This is definitely the most singing and dancing type of group I’ve ever been around,” said head coach Charli Turner Thorne of this senior class. “They really know how to have fun and they have a real love for the game.”
Katie Hempen, Elisha Davis, Arnecia Hawkin, Eliza Normen and Peace Amukamara have achieved quite a bit as Sun Devils, and as the end of their tenure at ASU approaches, they’re taking it all in stride.
(Photo: Drew Martin/WCSN)
With ASU sitting atop the conference late into the regular season, few could be considered more responsible for why the Sun Devils have had such a high level of success than Katie Hempen.
Since transferring from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in May of 2012, Hempen has asserted herself as one of the top shooters in the conference and a main leader both on and off the court for ASU.
In her senior campaign, Hempen is the team’s third leading scorer with 9.2 points per game, and is shooting a blistering 44 percent from deep, a career high and the ninth best percentage in the entire country.
Her unbelievable shooting from long range and her ability to sustain that effectiveness allowed her to break Kylan Loney’s ASU record for career three-pointers this year when ASU took on UCLA. Loney’s record was 161, and with four games under her belt since breaking the record, Hempen currently sits at the top of the ASU record books with 174.
“I’ve worked extremely hard to be where I’m at,” Hempen said of breaking the ASU three-point record. “My coaches just always wanted me to be the best I can be and they’ve just really done that this past year.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Hempen’s record is that she was able to accomplish the feat in only three years with the team, as she was forced to sit out her first year at ASU due to NCAA transfer rules.
But despite her lethal jump shot, ASU head coach Charli Turner Thorne believes that Hempen is much more than just a deep threat.
“[Her impact] is a lot more than just scoring,” said Turner Thorne. “She’s definitely our best help-side defender, she takes a charge in just about every game, and just one of our leaders, brings great energy. And you know, I think she’s just a complete player…She’s actually the best screener on our team as well.”
One of the most important aspects of Hempen’s presence is her incredible leadership. When the team is up, you can find her smiling from ear to ear and screaming in support of her teammates. When the team struggles, she’ll be the first to console her teammates and let them know that it’s time to get back to work.
Hempen exhibits a sense of extreme maturity at all times, and she attributes her growth to Turner Thorne and the ASU women’s basketball program.
“I’ve grown in all different ways here,” Hempen said. “As an adult, I’ve matured a lot with leadership, communication and with holding myself accountable. Charli wants you to get ready for the outside world and to become a leader. The fact that I feel comfortable leaving Arizona State outside of basketball makes me feel really, really good. Charli cares about you as a person just as much as she cares about you as a basketball player.”
(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
Davis’ road to becoming a Sun Devil was an unusual one.
The charismatic and jovial leader of this ASU squad, Elisha “Lili” Davis came to the Sun Devils from Berkeley High School in Oakland, Calif.
She was recruited and signed during Turner Thorne’s sabbatical in 2011, but has grown to have a very close relationship with her coach. Over the past three seasons, she’s led ASU in assists, giving her the second most in Sun Devil history behind Briann January.
In her formative years, she faced many hardships in her youth and overcame poverty to make it to ASU, but you could never tell from being around her.
“I just feel good because it’s been a really long journey for me,” Davis said. “I wanna enjoy the moment.”
Day in and day out, Davis is the life of this ASU team. With a constant smile on her face, she can usually be found giving her rendition of the latest dance move or joking around with her teammates. Davis’ fun-loving demeanor has made her a fan favorite not only at ASU, but in the entire Pac-12 too as one of the conference’s most prominent personalities.
“A lot of people just really wish they had the opportunity that we do,” Davis said. “People really do want this and the fact that we have this opportunity means we really need to appreciate it and do the best we can do every day.”
Another exceptional aspect of Davis’ game is that she’s been able to perform at such a high level despite only standing at 5-foot-3. She is generally the shortest player on the court at all times, but has starred for ASU as both a capable scorer and an elite perimeter defender.
With such a small frame, Davis has been the target of doubts throughout her basketball career, but her time as a Sun Devil has made more of a statement than her size ever could have.
“My favorite thing has been proving those wrong that counted me out,” Davis said. “My freshman year we went 13-18, the worst we’ve ever done in the program. Sophomore year everybody expected us to be bottom of the Pac-12 and we wound up being top four. Junior year, same thing. So just proving everyone wrong and not allowing that to stop us from believing in ourselves has been big for me.”
Through the wins, the losses, the successes and the heartbreaks, Davis always wears her emotions on her sleeve. Her talent has allowed her to surpass the barriers that normally accompany a 5-foot-3 basketball player and become a prominent figure for the Sun Devils.
“Anything we do in life we want to be successful, so we’re gonna work as hard as we can to achieve that,” Davis said. “But we should never allow that to overshadow enjoying the process and all of the experiences that come with it.”
With one last regular season home game, it would be easy for most players to get lost in the narrative of Senior Day, but Davis doesn’t have that luxury. She’ll draw the unenviable task of trying to contain Washington’s Kelsey Plum, the nation’s second-leading scorer.
Even so, Davis, never one to back down from a challenge, is ready to take on Plum and the Huskies and to face the emotions that come with Senior Day.
“We’re really focused on this game to do the best we can and get this W,” Davis said. “For me, I’m not really in the ‘Oh, it’s my senior year, this is my last time’ mentality. I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m juiced because it was really hard for me to get to this point, so for me it’s not really a sad moment, it’s happy because I know I’ve grown so much.”
(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
Another colorful character in this senior class, Arnecia Hawkins went to high school right down the road from ASU at Mountain View High in Mesa, Ariz., where she helped lead her team to multiple state semifinals appearances and garnered Mesa City Player of the Year as a senior. She was a first-team All-State player in both her junior and senior seasons.
Hawkins was rated as the fourth best recruit in Arizona according to ESPN and elected to join the Sun Devils for her college career.
She mostly came off of the bench to play limited minutes in her first three seasons, but Hawkins has experienced a major change in roles during her senior campaign.
During the 2015-16 season, Hawkins has started in 15 of ASU’s 27 games and averages nearly 23 minutes per game, up from her average of only 14 minutes per game in her junior season.
“It’s been really exciting,” Hawkins said of her new role with the team. “I’m really happy I’ve been able to step up and help my team when they need it.”
Hawkins has come on as one of the premiere scorers for ASU with 9.5 points per game, second only to junior forward Sophie Brunner’s 11 points per game. Her three-point shot is one of the best on the team, but Hawkins has the added benefit of being the best slasher on the team, allowing her to get to the basket with ease.
Just as Hempen did, Hawkins was quick to highlight how important Turner Thorne has been in her maturation both on and off the court.
“[Charli] has had a big impact,” Hawkins said. “All of our coaches preach the same things as Charli does but she definitely takes the lead. She wants us to truly be better people when we leave here. She just wants us to improve and be able to take what we’ve learned here and be able to transfer it into the real world.”
Despite playing basketball for the majority of her life, Hawkins believes that her time at ASU has taught her more than she’d ever learned about herself and her life through sports before.
“I think that my time here has completely impacted the way that I view life and the way that I react to everything,” Hawkins said. “I’ve learned patience and I’ve learned more about teamwork than I’d ever learned in 18 years of [playing basketball]. But I’ve learned so much besides basketball. It’s incredible”
As her final regular season home game approaches, Hawkins is looking to finish out her career as a Sun Devil strongly, and avoid feeling the torrent of emotions that are sure to arrive come tipoff.
“I am very excited,” Hawkins said of the Senior Day matchup with Washington. “I’m super pumped up, especially since it’s our last regular season home game. I’m really trying to block the sad feelings. I don’t really want to feel them before the game. I’m gonna try not to make eye contact with anybody.”
(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
With all of the flamboyant characters in this senior class, Normen is a much more quiet presence (especially when put next to Lili Davis), but she’s served a pretty big purpose for the Sun Devils over these last few years.
In high school, Normen was a very accomplished player, earning WBCA All-America honors during her impressive career at Monarch High School in Louisville, Colo. There, she led her team in scoring and was having a phenomenal senior season until she sustained a knee injury that cut her high school career short.
Fortunately for Normen, the injury to her knee did not keep her from playing college ball. Although Normen has only started eight games in her four seasons with the Sun Devils, she’s been a solid contributor off the bench.
“I have so much gratitude,” Normen said. “I’m just lucky to be a part of this awesome year with such a great team.”
She’s provided toughness, consistency and a hardworking attitude to an ASU team that’s needed help in the low post when players like Brunner and junior center Quinn Dornstauder are out of the game.
Normen also brings a very underrated aspect of her game to the table, her dribbling ability. She doesn’t score often, but when she does it’s usually off of a nice move with the ball in her hands, something that’s rare for a post player.
Normen’s humble temperament has allowed her to be a great teammate. In all of her time at ASU, the memories most prominent in her mind aren’t those of personal achievement, but moments when the team accomplished something as a whole.
“My favorites memories I’d have to say were beating Stanford in OT this season and getting to the sweet sixteen last year,” Normen said. “It was just a lot of fun and something we all worked hard toward.”
Being a part of the ASU women’s basketball program has been essential to what Normen has accomplished in the last four years, and she attributes much of her growth to it.
“This program has impacted me in so many ways,” Normen said. “It’s given me discipline, hard work, and you learn time management and how to work with people, so it’s been incredible.”
(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
To longtime Sun Devil women’s basketball fans—or New York Giants fans—the last name Amukamara might sound familiar. This is because Peace, currently the backup point guard for ASU, is just the latest in a long line of athletic Amukamara children.
Her older sister Promise was a shooting guard for ASU for four years, graduating after the 2014-15 season. Her older brother Prince won a super bowl with the Giants after being picked in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. Her older sister Precious ran track at Grand Canyon University and her younger sister Passionate is a freshman on Northern Arizona University’s women’s basketball team.
So obviously, the Amukamara family has athleticism in their blood, and the case is no different when it comes to Peace.
After graduating from Goodyear Millennium High School in Glendale, Ariz., Peace played two years at Mesa Community College. Her time at MCC was impressive to say the least.
In her sophomore year, she was named the NJCAA Division II Player of the Year as she led MCC to its first national championship in program history. She was also named MVP of the championship tournament and was one of the most touted junior college transfers in the country.
With all that success at the JUCO level, Peace’s transition to becoming a backup at Arizona State was a difficult one.
“I think the biggest thing that changed was my role on the team,” Peace said. “I had to get used to that, and I accept my role now. It was hard at first, I wasn’t happy, but I’m glad I stuck through and made it all worth it.”
One of the major reasons that Peace was able to make it through the transition was the presence of her sister Promise. Because of the time of the transfer, Promise was able to share her senior season with her little sister, something that wound up greatly helping Peace’s progression as a player.
“[Promise] helped me a lot,” Peace said. “With school, eating, practice and everything else.”
Since then, Peace has had a more comfortable senior season. She’s served as the backup point guard to Davis and has logged valuable minutes over the course of the 2015-16 season.
Unfortunately, as the team prepares for its final home game, Peace will not be at her full strength due to a minor knee injury. However, she’s still taking in everything that Senior Day is about.
“Well for me, I’m just kinda in awe,” Peace said. “I wish I could perform at my highest level and now that I have something going on with my knee I can’t, but it’s going to be fun. I’m excited. I mean I’m sad because I’m leaving, but other than that I’m excited to play and make more history with my teammates.”
In the end, Peace’s two years at ASU have not only helped her to become a better basketball player, but a better person as well.
“I feel like I became more mature in my time here,” Peace said. “I was really immature coming in and wasn’t serious, and I feel like Charli and the coaching staff and also my teammates have helped me become more vocal and more of a leader. They’ve taught me a lot of new things.”
(Photo: Brooke Faber/WCSN)
Without a doubt, these five seniors have played a big part in making ASU one of the top contenders for a Pac-12 title, and the Sun Devils will do everything they can to take advantage of the position they’re in this season and send them out on top.
“Since coming in freshman year they’ve played a big role in my career here,” Brunner said of her senior teammates. “They’ve been really impactful and influential. They hold us all accountable and they speak at the hardest times when things are going wrong. The seniors as a whole do a really good job of keeping everyone poised and making sure we’re on the same track.
“They all have different roles, and you may not see it because some play more than others, but if we didn’t have those roles off the court, what we’re trying to do on the court wouldn’t work. They’re obviously gonna be missed because we’re a veteran team, so we’re just trying to take advantage of the opportunity we have left.”