Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne and her inexperienced team are facing their toughest test of the season.
First up is a game against No. 15 California on Friday. Next, fourth-ranked Stanford on Monday.
"We haven't lost at home, but we have the top teams coming in and we're definitely up for the challenge," said Turner Thorne in a phone interview. "I'm excited to see where we are, but there are a lot of games left after this weekend."
It's been a somewhat unexpected start for the Sun Devils (14-2, 3-1 Pac-12). Turner Thorne's team was predicted to finish 10th in the conference in the Pac-12 preseason poll.
Yet Arizona State cruised through a difficult nonconference slate at 13-1, including victories over then-No. 11 North Carolina and No. 20 Syracuse. The Sun Devils have been finding ways to win the close games. They are 6-0 in contests decided by five points or less, including winning three overtime games.
"Some of them shouldn't have gone to overtime, but we're young and I've given us the moniker of 'the cardiac kids.'," Turner Thorne said. "We've had leads and given them away. That's some of the youth and newness of our team, but we've showed great poise."
The Sun Devils will need to show that poise against the Pac-12's best. It helps that Turner Thorne's squad has a favorable schedule with a Friday matinee against Cal before a Monday night matchup against Stanford. Arizona State hasn't swept the two Bay Area schools since 2006 — the last time the Sun Devils beat Stanford.
"Usually when you play them it's back to back with an early Sunday game," Turner Thorne said. "Prep wise to have to recover quickly against two top teams isn't easy. So the setup is really favorable and it's going to give us that better opportunity to be prepared."
Turner Thorne, who is second all-time in Pac-12 victories, feels more prepared now after taking a sabbatical from coaching in the 2011-12 season. She brought success to Arizona State in her 17 years at the school that included a five-year run from 2005-09 when the team advanced to the Elite Eight twice. Yet she felt that she was getting away from who she was as a person and that mattered more than any win total.
"I just was so in the grind. I wasn't who I wanted to be and I was working all the time. I didn't like who I was," she said. "It's a very addictive profession and obsessive. You work every day all the time."
Turner Thorne was able to look at herself and her program and recharge. While it may have set the program back a little bit, it was something she needed to do.
"I didn't work every day," she said. "I got to do what I wanted to do as opposed to what I had to do. I didn't know how to relax. It was pretty hysterical, my family would go to school and work and I would schedule meetings."
The time away helped as she went to clinics, talked to people and filled up five notebooks with ideas for her Sun Devils. She also got to reconnect with her family in a way that she wasn't able to with the hours she had been working.
"I feel more back refreshed and ready now, it's really something that everyone should do if they have a chance," Turner Thorne said. "You can't lose who you are."
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