Updated: December 1, 2013, 11:39 PM ET

Sun Devils make most of time away

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

ASUSteve Rodriguez/Sun Devil AthleticsThe Sun Devils surround Adrianne Thomas after her shot forced overtime against North Carolina.

What does a basketball coach do when Thanksgiving requires a pregame speech rather than post-turkey nap?

"We just talked about gobbling up rebounds," Arizona State's Charli Turner Thorne explained, with an appropriate degree of sheepishness, of her message before a game against Illinois on Thursday in Cancun, Mexico.

Even with a light schedule, 24 teams were in action on Thanksgiving, and far more than that spent the holiday traveling or preparing for weekend games in holiday tournaments across the country and beyond -- from Mexico, where Arizona State ventured, to the U.S. Virgin Islands to otherwise deserted college campuses across the map.

In college basketball, the holiday week is a chance to give thanks for the opportunity to squeeze in games while players aren't distracted by pesky papers to write. And no team made better use of its time away from home this season than the Sun Devils, who went 3-0 in Mexico, highlighted by a 94-81 overtime victory against No. 11 North Carolina.

With the exception of an extended run in a conference tournament, these typically neutral-site events are just about the only time a team will play so much basketball in such a short span of time. It can be a valuable infusion of game-speed experience. Even for teams like the Sun Devils that fare well, that doesn't always equate to the crispest basketball.

Charli Turner Thorne
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonAfter going 13-18 and missing the postseason in 2012-13, Charli Turner Thorne and ASU are 6-1 this season.

Arizona State was at its most effective in an 84-60 win against Illinois to open its stay. It shot 56 percent for the game and limited Illinois to 32 percent shooting. Those shooting numbers converged against North Carolina a day later, but Adrianne Thomas' putback layup as time expired in regulation capped a six-point comeback in the final 27 seconds that sent the game to overtime, where Arizona State cruised to the victory.

By the finale against Arkansas State, Arizona State committed 20-plus turnovers for the third game in a row and allowed its opponent to shoot 54 percent. But free throws in the final minute preserved a 69-66 win.

"We can be so much better," Turner Thorne said from the airport in Cancun as the team prepared to leave. "We won doing some real good things -- rebounding really well, scoring really well at times. But we haven't even scratched the surface in terms of where we want to be with our team offense and defense.

"The thing I'm excited about and that really carried the day this past weekend was just our toughness."

For a team coming off its first losing season in more than a decade and picked this season to finish 10th in the Pac-12, as in ahead of only Arizona and Oregon, both the intangible toughness and tangible win against a ranked foe represent welcome developments.

Arizona State returned three starters from a season ago, along with three other players who averaged double-digit minutes in Turner Thorne's familiarly extended playing rotation. They welcomed back Deja Mann, the team's assists leader and third-leading scorer in 2011-12 who missed last season with an injury, and welcomed in transfer Katie Hempen and freshmen Sophie Brunner, Quinn Dornstauder and Kelsey Moos. With all of the above playing roles in Cancun and through the season's first month, that gives Turner Thorne ample depth to work with. It's also a mix of new and old that helps both improve on and move beyond last season.

The freshmen are the first class to sign with Turner Thorne after she returned to the sideline last season following a one-year leave for personal reasons. Moos has started all seven games this season, and she and Brunner, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds against the Tar Heels and their vaunted freshman class, are two of the team's top three rebounders. Mann is the team's leading scorer, and along with Hempen, gives the team 3-point shooting it didn't have a season ago. But holdovers like Thomas, who finished with 23 points and eight assists against North Carolina, are also part of it.

At its best in seasons past, Arizona State was always a collection of more parts than most teams dared try to fit together. For whatever reason, things didn't fit seamlessly in Turner Thorne's first season back, perhaps in part because it was her first season.

"It really did take a year because when somebody else is there it's just a different culture," Turner Thorne said. "And it did change, and I feel like we're kind of back to the way at least I'm used to having, the kind of culture and team that I think lends itself to outworking teams, the discipline and the team chemistry. We still have a lot of growth to go with this team, but it's just got a lot better vibe."

Arizona State was far from the only team to spring an upset. Ranked teams lost six times between Thursday and Sunday, including a pair of losses by Texas A&M against Texas and Syracuse, and Michigan State and Nebraska losing at home against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne and Washington State, respectively. But for the Sun Devils, the hope is this is more than one good week in the sun.

"I'm excited about this group," Turner Thorne said. "They definitely are getting back to the teams that we've had in the past, basically, just the toughness and discipline and chemistry and stuff."

Talk about something for which to be thankful.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Wildcats' new weapon: 3-point shot

Kentucky/LouisvilleMark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsSamarie Walker and No. 7 Kentucky topped No. 4 Louisville to improve to 8-0.

When a team trails by 14 points early in the first half, as No. 7 Kentucky did in Sunday's Bluegrass derby against No. 4 Louisville, it must be nice to have a shot available that counts for extra points. The 3-pointer certainly proved useful as the Wildcats overcame that double-digit deficit and held on for a 69-64 win. And in some ways, that's not a tool Matthew Mitchell's teams had at their disposal in recent seasons.

Oh sure, Kentucky was always a 3-point shooting team. It just wasn't a particularly good 3-point shooting team.

The Wildcats hoisted 3-pointers by the bucketful -- 321 more attempts than their opponents a season ago, 291 more two seasons ago. But it was generally a case of quantity trumping quality. They hit 32.8 percent of their attempts in 2012-13 and 32 percent in 2011-12, neither mark good enough to crack the top 60 nationally. That's not a problem when they end up with more possessions than their opponents, a common function of the team's trademark pressure defense, but Kentucky didn't end up with that many more possessions than Louisville, which committed its share of turnovers but also collected 20 offensive rebounds. Kentucky had to be efficient, and it was, hitting 8-of-17 3-point attempts, not including Jennifer O'Neill's dagger with a foot on the line and less than a minute to play.

One game is a ridiculously small sample size. So is one month, for that matter, but Kentucky is shooting 39.7 percent from the 3-point line through eight games. Whether that's sustainable remains to be seen, but it had a lot to do with why the Wildcats sent a capacity crowd home happy Sunday afternoon.

Rise of the Norse

Its a small world. Prior to taking over as Northern Kentuckys coach a season ago, Dawn Plitzuweit spent five years as Kevin Borseths associate head coach at Michigan. Her new boss in her second year at Northern Kentucky? First-year athletic director Ken Bothof, the man who first lost and then reclaimed Borseth at Green Bay. Anyway, the six degrees of separation is neither here nor there, except to say that Bothof had few reasons to quibble with any of his womens basketball coaches over the past decade, and it appears that position still wont be a concern.

A holiday week tournament at Robert Morris wasnt the highest profile event on the schedule, but Northern Kentucky came away with reason to savor wins against the host and UT Martin. This is just the second year in Division I for the Norse, and the program based just south of the Ohio River might be in the better shape than its Cincinnati-area counterparts (Northern Kentucky already beat Cincinnati by 16 points this season).

Recruited to what was then a Division II program, like most of her teammates, junior Melody Doss averaged 18.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the weekend wins and actually saw her season scoring average dip as a result -- all the way to 21.1 points per game for someone who is shooting 57 percent from the 3-point line despite averaging 8.4 rebounds per game. At 4-3 this season and 19-16 in Division I, Northern Kentucky is doing something right.

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