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TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne knew the negative impact her sabbatical would have on the program, the big hit on recruiting, the lack of continuity and leadership and, mostly likely, the losses on the court.
Even so, Turner Thorne had to step away. After more than 20 years of coaching basketball, the grind of the job had taken a toll on her life and her psyche, changing her as a coach and a person.
"I think 15 years at ASU, we had a lot of success, but I felt stuck a little," Turner Thorne said. "It's just really hard in a job like this to have reflection time, clarity, barely take a week of vacation a year. There's really no windows to step back with this job and I was feeling like I really needed to, that I wasn't leading this program where it needed to go and I wasn't where I needed to be as a leader for the program."
The time away worked out just as Turner Thorne expected: She came back rejuvenated and the program did dip, to one of its worst finishes in her tenure.
Then something somewhat unexpected happened: The program bounced back quicker than anyone could have anticipated.
Buoyed by a deep roster and the principles Turner Thorne honed during her nearly nine months away, the Sun Devils have been one of the surprises of women's college basketball this season.
Entering Sunday's game against rival Arizona, Arizona State is 20-3 and 9-2 in the Pac-12, with victories over Top-25 teams Syracuse and Miami, and is up to No. 11 in The Associated Press poll.
Not bad for a team picked to finish 10th in its conference.
"No, I didn't necessarily think we would have this level of consistency," Turner Thorne said. "But early on through this offseason, I got a great feeling for this team's commitment. It was night and day from last season in terms of how hard they were working."
Turner Thorne set the foundation for the quick turnaround during her sabbatical.
While the Sun Devils were winning 20 games under interim coach Joseph Anders in 2011-12, Turner Thorne spent time with her family and finally relaxing after years of chasing an all-consuming job.
She also was able to step back and take a big-picture look at her program and the way she coached it.
Turner Thorne filled up five notebooks with ideas, touching on everything from developing better leadership — both by her and her players — redefining the culture within the program and shooting techniques after spending time with a shooting coach.
The Sun Devils noticed the difference in their coach when she returned for the 2012-13 season, notably how relaxed she was, but the results weren't there on the court.
With Turner Thorne unable to recruit during her sabbatical, Arizona State was left with a young, inexperienced team. Making matters worse, point guard Deja Mann, the lone returning starter from the previous season, tore her ACL during the preseason and had to redshirt.
The Sun Devils finished the season 13-18 and were ninth in the Pac-12, their worst finish since Turner Thorne's first season in 1996-97.
"Everyone was in a brand new role," senior center Joy Burke said. "When Deja got hurt, there were only three people who had experience being coached by Charli and it was completely new."
After that disappointing season, Turner Thorne decided to take a different approach with this year's team during the offseason.
One glaring weakness of the 2012-13 team was its lack of toughness, so Turner Thorne and her coaching staff spent the offseason trying to make the players stronger, not just by pushing them physically with extra running and in the weight room, but mentally as well.
It's paid off.
Relying on the dig-down-deep mentality instilled during the offseason, the Sun Devils have outlasted teams when the game gets tight, finding a way to hit that big shot and get a defensive stop down the stretch when they need it.
Arizona State has won six Pac-12 games decided by three points or less, including an overtime victory over USC on Jan. 10, and won five other nonconference games that either went to overtime or were three points or less.
"Charli always talks about not having a sell-out point and I don't think this team has a sell-out point," Mann said. "There always a way to dig deeper and dig deeper."
That applies to Arizona State's roster as well.
While most teams have rotations that are seven or eight deep, the Sun Devils have 11 players who have contributed consistently.
Mann leads the team in scoring at 11.3 points per game, but Arizona State has seven players who average at least seven per game. The Sun Devils have 10 players who have scored in double figures in a game this season, seven who led or tied the team in scoring or assists, and five who have led or tied in rebounding.
Against then-No. 15 California on Jan. 17, freshman Quinn Dornstauder, who averages three points per game, surprised the Bears by scoring 13 points in a 68-59 win.
"Their coach is about ready to blow a gasket because she's not on their scouting report," Turner Thorne said. "That's just been our season."
It's a season that's gotten the Sun Devils back on track after a short detour.