Toughness. It's the difference, senior guard Elisha Davis says, between the way Arizona State will finish this season and the way it finished the last one. It boils down to that one word.
"And when I say that, I don't mean acting tough, but being tough enough to still do the little things at the end of the game," Davis said. "The hard cuts, the hand signals, the counter moves you have to have when someone has scouted you. We have to be tough enough to push through it to the end."
The 18th-ranked Sun Devils got their first taste of the toughness test Sunday against No. 13 Kentucky at home. Arizona State led by 12 at the half, but the Wildcats rallied for a 68-64 overtime victory. It wasn't exactly a failure. There is plenty of time for more tests. Say, in a couple of weeks when second-ranked South Carolina comes up on the schedule on Nov. 27 in Hawaii.
Arizona State would like to think it's prepared. Charli Turner Thorne's team has four returning starters and eight returners overall back on the floor, prepared to take the next step up the ladder after winning 29 games and finishing second in the Pac-12 last season before a run to the Sweet 16 and a 66-65 loss to Florida State.
It's that narrow margin of toughness that Davis spoke of.
"We need to get a good shot every time down the floor. We lacked that last year. ... We want anybody who has the ball to be able to score." ASU senior guard Elisha Davis
Following the Kentucky game, Turner Thorne said her team is "not there yet."
"We didn't step up today the way we are capable of," the coach said.
Junior forward Sophie Brunner came back to Tempe after spending much of the summer with the best college basketball players in the country, playing for USA Basketball on the World University Games team that won a gold medal. The team included Connecticut stars Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, and South Carolina's Alaina Coates and Tiffany Mitchell.
The thing she learned, the difference between being good and great, was another key word: consistency.
"It was the little things they did over and over that made them great," Brunner said. "It made me realize that it wasn't that they were doing something extra as much as they were really efficient and consistent about the things every time. That's what I brought back."
Brunner, who had 19 points and seven rebounds against Kentucky, returns as the team's leading rebounder (7.6 RPG) and second-leading scorer behind redshirt senior guard Katie Hempen (12.0 PPG). Davis led the Sun Devils with 5.4 assists per game last season. Quinn Dornstauder, a 6-5 junior center, makes Arizona State a little bigger than last season. And junior forward Kelsey Moos, the team's other returning starter, is a player who knows the kind of intense, relentless defense her coach wants to play.
"We need to be better in our offensive execution," Turner Thorne said. "We need to be more efficient against top defensive teams. If you want to get that UConn level, where you can play off each other, and keep the floor spaced, you have to be able to do that. We need to pick that up, we need to become a better rebounding team. We need to have a rebounding mentality."
Davis says she believes she and her teammates have a better idea "what it takes" to be an elite-level team.
"We need to get a good shot every time down the floor," Davis said. "We lacked that last year. Too many times we were focused on getting one or two people the ball at the end of the shot clock. We want anybody who has the ball to be able to score."
Brunner said Turner Thorne and the coaching staff have put more responsibility on the players this year.
"We are taking more on ourselves, being more proactive," Brunner said. "I think we are going to see more people step up into bigger roles. We really have to make it hard on other teams to play us. We have to outwork people."
Turner Thorne, the second-winningest coach in Pac-12 history, is preparing her team to be a target. And to combat that, the Sun Devils will need both toughness and consistency.
"People really want to beat us now," she said. "We have to have respect for that."