The Vanderbilt women’s basketball team spent an uneasy Monday night watching television.
For Arizona State, it would not be surprising if this entire season has been a bit tense.
But both Vanderbilt and Arizona State have earned berths in the NCAA tournament and will meet in a first-round game today at 11 a.m. at Savage Arena.
Players and coaches from both teams arrived at the University of Toledo for practices and interviews Friday. For Vanderbilt, Monday’s NCAA selection show carried some fear because the Commodores were a “bubble” team uncertain they would make a 15th straight tournament appearance.
“We definitely prepared for the worst but hoped for the best,” senior guard Jasmine Lister said. “We never really doubted we would get in, but seeing that we had to wait until the last bracket kept us on our toes.
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“That made the celebration and excitement even better. It was the best celebration I have been a part of in my four years.”
The Commodores were 18-12 overall and part of a five-way tie for sixth in the 14-team Southeastern Conference. But losing eight of their last 10 regular-season games, followed by a first-round SEC tournament loss to Georgia, created some jitters.
“Our celebration was awesome [when we got the bid],” senior guard Christina Foggie said. “We were so happy that when we came into practice we had a new step and a new life."
For Arizona State, the NCAA tournament bid was the reward for a 22-9 regular season and 11-7 mark good for a fourth-place tie in the Pac-12. It was a far cry from last season, when the Sun Devils were 13-18 and finished ninth in the league.
Those struggles, which snapped Arizona State’s string of 13 consecutive NCAA tournament berths, were the main reason it was picked to finish 10th in the league’s preseason coaches poll.
“Those preseason rankings are based on last season, and we knew that with the core group coming in we were going to get better and tougher,” senior center Joy Burke said. “We knew that having returning players like Deja [Mann] back was a big improvement, and almost made us like a new team.”
Vanderbilt is led by Foggie, who averages 19.1 points per game, and Lister (13.9 points and a team-high 4.7 assists). Arizona State is led by Mann, who averages 11.0 points per game.
Both teams have had extended breaks, as Vanderbilt’s last game was March 6 and Arizona State has not played since March 7. Commodores coach Melanie Balcolm said she will try to use the break to her team’s advantage.
“We’ve always finished strong, but 14-day [breaks] killed our momentum,” she said. “Now I’m using reverse psychology: I would say that even the teams that did well, their momentum is killed.
“Whether we got in or not, we were going to have great practices. I was proud of my players, how they responded and worked not knowing that they were definitely getting in [the tournament].”
Arizona State also struggled late in the season, losing six of its last eight games before suffering a loss to USC in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, so Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne said the break helped her team hit the reset button.
“Usually I don’t like [the break] because your playing well and peaking, and it’s a long time off,” she said. “This year it was fantastic for us — it was exactly what we needed.
"I thought our players handled it well and now are ready to play.”