CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Courtney Ekmark has two NCAA championship rings from her time at Connecticut.
Clearly, she knows how to win at this time of year.
Ekmark scored 15 of her game-high 20 points in the second half, and fifth-seeded Arizona State beat 12th-seeded UCF 60-45 on Friday night in a Portland Region first-round game. It was only the third 20-point game of the season for Ekmark, who essentially doubled her season scoring average of 10.2 points per game coming into Friday.
“She has probably been the most closely guarded player that I’ve ever coached in 30 years of coaching,” Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said of Ekmark, who left Connecticut after two seasons to transfer back to her home state. “Every game in the Pac-12, she was blanketed. When she heard we were facing a zone, she went, ‘Yes!’”
Kianna Ibis added 12 for Arizona State (21-10), which won a first-round game for the sixth consecutive season and will play Miami on Sunday. Ibis had six points in a 10-0 run late in the third quarter that put the Sun Devils up by 22.
Kay Kay Wright led UCF (26-7) with 18 points. It was the first NCAA tournament appearance for the Knights since 2011, and they’re now 0-5 in their five trips to the tourney — doomed Friday in part by 32 percent shooting.
“I don’t think this experience was a downfall for us,” Wright said. “I just think some shots didn’t fall early on.”
Ekmark opened the game with a 3-pointer, then opened the second half with a pair of 3s. Those two quickly turned what was a 10-point halftime lead to a 16-point edge, and the lead stayed in double digits the rest of the way.
“Those were big shots,” UCF coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “To hit those shots in games, in this atmosphere, in this gym, those were big shots for her.”
Said Ekmark: “It was a great way to start the second half.”
UCF got within 48-36 with 7:26 left on a short jumper by Diamond Battles, the end of an 8-0 run that started late in the third. But Ekmark helped get things back under control, driving in from the right side for a basket that put Arizona State up 51-36 with 5:56 left — and snapped an 0 for 7 drought from the floor.
Ekmark then got free for a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3:19 left for a 57-41 lead, essentially ending the Knights’ hopes.
“She is an amazing shooter,” Turner Thorne said. “She can take over.”
UCF: The Knights missed 10 of their first 11 shots, and 17 of their first 20. … UCF went with a starting lineup last used on Feb. 9, which was 10 games ago. Kayla Thigpen moved back into the starting lineup in place of Sydnee McDonald. … The No. 12 seed was UCF’s highest of its five NCAA tournament appearances. … UCF was outrebounded 42-27.
Arizona State: This is the second year that Arizona State got NCAA tournament wins from both its men’s and women’s teams. The other instance was 2009. … The Sun Devils are now 17-2 this season in games where they led by 10 or more points. The losses came against Baylor on Nov. 11 and Cal on Feb. 22. … It was the 36th NCAA tournament game for the Sun Devils, the first of those in Florida.
21 BY 21
By the time the teams were 2 1/2 minutes into the second quarter, they combined to use 21 players — 11 by UCF, 10 by Arizona State. The teams also had combined for 21 points — Arizona State was up 14-7.
Before this year, UCF had never received an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament since joining Division I — in men’s or women’s basketball. Both programs got at-large nods this season.
Arizona State plays Miami on Sunday.