Four Months After Tragedy, Arizona State Finally Meets Rutgers

Third-seeded Sun Devils face No. 4-seed Rutgers in Greensboro Regional final

March 25, 2007

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Arizona State's Aubree Johnson was unstoppable. At least, her younger brother Jordan always thought so.

"He was always like, 'Shoot it!' or 'You can take her!"' Johnson said Sunday. "He would be a lot more excited that I've been more aggressive this year - he always told me to shoot more."

Four months after his death, Johnson and the Sun Devils remain determined to honor his memory Monday night in the Greensboro Regional final, where a twist of fate matches them against the Rutgers team they were supposed to face before 15-year-old Jordan Johnson died.

"It seems that it has been our destiny to play Arizona State," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "It's kind of ironic that the game that was to be played at the beginning (of the season) would now be played at the end to decide who goes to the Final Four."

The fourth-seeded Scarlet Knights (25-8) and third-seeded Sun Devils (31-4) were supposed to play in the championship game of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam on Nov. 25. But Jordan, who made the trip to St. Thomas to watch his beloved big sister play, died in his sleep the night before from an enlarged heart.

The game was canceled, though neither team was given a loss because of the NCAA's "catastrophic event" rule. Rutgers could have claimed a forfeit victory simply by showing up, but instead the Scarlet Knights stayed away from the arena.

"To take a forfeit like that, in that type of situation? I couldn't imagine anyone doing that," Rutgers forward Essence Carson said. "That's kind of low."

Instead, Stringer visited Johnson and her family to try to comfort them, then periodically kept in touch during the season.

"It's incredible (Stringer) put life as a priority above basketball, because in college basketball it really gets blown up as the most important thing, when it's just a game," Johnson said. "I could just really tell how genuine she was. ... What they did for us was really remarkable."


 

 

During the months after the tragedy, the Sun Devils galvanized by taking up Jordan's cause, setting the school record for victories and advancing deeper in the tournament than any previous Arizona State team.

"Our team has gone through a lot this season, and our team responded really well," Johnson said.

They were in control throughout their 67-49 victory over seventh-seeded Bowling Green in the first regional semifinal. Then, the Sun Devils watched from their hotel rooms as the Scarlet Knights pulled off a last-second 53-52 upset of Duke, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

"I guess we can go ahead and say it now - we did want to play Rutgers, for various reasons," Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said.

Stringer said the Scarlet Knights' youthful roster, which has five freshmen and no seniors, is better equipped now to face the high-pressure Sun Devils defense than when the numerous newcomers were still adjusting to the speed of the college game.

"We could not have handled that team at that time, we were so young," Stringer said.

Now, after a statement victory over Duke, those young players must prove their maturity by avoiding a potential letdown against an Arizona State team that has embraced its us-against-the-world attitude.

"We have always been underrated, and I've liked that," Sun Devils forward Emily Westerberg said. "I like the fact that people can look at us and think that we're a bunch of skinny white girls who aren't athletic."

Well, at least one big Sun Devils fan has never underestimated them. Just what would Jordan make of his big sister's team advancing to within one win of the Final Four?

"He'd definitely be here (and) he'd probably be excited that he was skipping school," Johnson said, laughing. "He just really enjoyed watching me, and he was a great basketball player himself. ... I think he would be really excited and really proud of me."