Four months later, Rutgers, ASU to meet after all

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne was asked about the regional final matchup that awaited her Sun Devils on Monday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). But ASU had just defeated Bowling Green 67-49, so Turner Thorne didn't know whom her team would play next. Duke-Rutgers had yet to tip off.

Yet there was an odd look on her face that suggested, somehow, she did know. Or at least suspected.

"Our players and the people in our ASU family think that it might be fate that this game will happen," Turner Thorne said.

"This game" means a matchup with Rutgers. Back on Nov. 25, the Sun Devils and Scarlet Knights were supposed to meet in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands. But the Arizona State team woke up to horrific, heartbreaking news: Jordan Johnson, the 15-year-old brother of senior forward Aubree Johnson, had died overnight in his sleep.

It was later determined his death was caused by an enlarged heart. Jordan was there in the Virgin Islands with his family to watch his sister and the Sun Devils play. Obviously, there was no way on earth the ASU team could take the court later that day.

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer could have picked up a victory by forfeit had she taken her team to the gym that day. But she didn't even consider it. Stringer, of course, has dealt with her share of personal tragedy, too. Her daughter suffered an illness in infancy that left her permanently disabled. And on Thanksgiving Day 1992, Stringer's husband, Bill, died of a heart attack.

Stringer kept her team away from the gym, and the game with ASU was canceled.

Now, almost four months to the day later, the Sun Devils and Scarlet Knights will indeed have their meeting. To get there, it took a dominant performance by ASU (67-49 over No. 7 seed Bowling Green) and a gritty, gutsy, grind-it-out 53-52 victory from Rutgers over the No. 1 overall seed (plus Duke's Lindsey Harding living out a Shakespearean tragedy on the foul line).

Sports constantly is more amazing and unpredictable than any plot ever written by the Bard. Through all kinds of twists and turns, ASU and Rutgers end up facing off for a trip to the Final Four.

The Sun Devils lost freshman guard Dymond Simon to an ACL injury on Jan. 21. They struggled in both their first-round victory over UC Riverside (57-50) and their second-round win against Louisville (67-58). Against the Cardinals, ASU starter and second-leading scorer Briann January got clocked near the end of the game and suffered a concussion. It prevented her from playing Saturday. And yet …

"We've made history here at Arizona State," Turner Thorne said. "Our program hasn't made it to the Elite Eight until today."

With January out, sophomore Danielle Orsillo went into the starting lineup against the Falcons. She found out not long before the game. She responded with a game-high 16 points, going 7-of-12 from the field.

The Sun Devils are a tight-knit bunch that has endured all that has happened to them this year. There are really no words for the pain Johnson has been through, but she has been able to use basketball as a sanctuary of sorts and has played very well down the stretch. She had 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists Saturday.

Now, the Sun Devils will try to earn the program's first appearance in the Final Four. They will also be carrying the banner for the Pac-10 and West Coast hoops. Other than Stanford, no West Coast team has made the Final Four since Long Beach State in 1988.

And, frankly, 1988 seems almost as distant as 1888 to today's women's basketball world. Stanford has for all practical purposes been the beginning and the end of West Coast hoops in the college game -- at least when it comes to March -- for a long, long time now.

But … there is still a major obstacle for the Sun Devils. Rutgers is about a million miles away from the team that lost to Duke by 40 points in December. The Scarlet Knights proved that with their Big East tournament title-game victory over UConn earlier this month and by knocking off the Blue Devils on Saturday.

When Rutgers met Duke in December, Matee Ajavon was just getting back into playing due to a stress fracture. Essence Carson, who has been Rutgers' rock, at times probably felt she was going 1-on-5. The Scarlet Knights, who lost the great Cappie Pondexter to graduation, were just trying to find their personality back then. They've found it now.

"I'm like an elephant, I don't forget," Stringer said of that loss to Duke. "We would play in practice every day with that in mind."

Stringer also said she told her team that there's no way it could have beaten Arizona State back in November. Safe to say she thinks otherwise now. Ajavon had 20 points against Duke, including a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left. Had she not hit that shot, we'd be talking about an all-Devils matchup in the regional final.

Instead, Rutgers is going for the program's second Final Four appearance. And the matchup that tragedy prevented will happen after all.

"After the game, I just went up to Aubree," ASU senior Emily Westerberg said, "and told her, 'I think Jordan's with us.' "

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.