Commentary

In helping others, Orsillo helps self, ASU

Sacrifice, selflessness help lead Sun Devils into the Sweet 16

Updated: March 28, 2009, 5:28 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

TRENTON, N.J. -- By the time Danielle Orsillo graduated from Las Plumas High School in Oroville, Calif., about an hour north of Sacramento, only Cheryl Miller and Charde Houston had scored more points in the history of California high school girls basketball. Only Miller, one of the sport's all-time icons, averaged more points per game during her prep career than Orsillo's 30.5 average, which includes a 36.7-point average in her final season.

[+] EnlargeDanielle Orsillo
AP Photo/John BazemoreDanielle Orsillo volunteers with disabled and handicapped children and adults in the Tempe area.

So it might not be surprising to discover that early in her collegiate career, Orsillo was at a bit of a loss. After all, under coach Charli Turner Thorne, Arizona State employs a philosophy with regard to playing time that occasionally resembles hockey as much as basketball. Players come in and out of the games in something close to line shifts, grinding out a few cycles of pressure defense and up-tempo offense before getting a rest.

In Orsillo's freshman season, nine players played in all 32 games. Eight averaged at least 15 minutes a game, but none averaged more than 25. The leading scorer averaged 8.6 shots per game; five other players averaged at least 5.5 attempts.

For a player used to spending entire games on the court with the ball in her hands, it might have seemed like culture shock. Only it wasn't playing time or touches that had Orsillo feeling out of place. The daughter of nondenominational pastors, she grew up volunteering in matters ranging from drug dependency to homelessness. And it was that outlet -- not taking outlets on the break -- that she missed.

"When I got here, I wasn't really doing anything and I felt a loss," Orsillo said of her community service participation. "So that's why I started to get involved through women's basketball in the community."

And with Orsillo as one of its clearest examples, that spirit of shared sacrifice and selflessness is one reason why Arizona State is the lowest seed standing as the NCAA tournament shifts to the Sweet 16. And it's why despite losing their leading scorer, Dymond Simon, in the last game of the regular season, the sixth-seeded Sun Devils believe they have more than a sleeper's chance against second-seeded Texas A&M on Sunday (ESPN2, 2:30 p.m. ET).

"To win the championship and be a great team, you have to have kids that give themselves over to the team," Turner Thorne said. "With that … I will say our No. 1 core value at Arizona State is be a giver. And we give out a community service award within our team, and we give back a lot to our community in Tempe and the greater Phoenix area. That is something I'm really adamant about with these young ladies -- with how much they get -- that they give back."

It didn't take Orsillo long to find her niche. She has been a longstanding volunteer with disabled and handicapped children and adults in the area, a passion born in part out of a love for her older brother, Mark, who has Down syndrome. Through those efforts, she applied for and was named a Tillman Scholar last year as part of the Pat Tillman Foundation's Leadership Through Action initiative at Arizona State. Created in honor of the former Arizona State and NFL star killed in action while serving in Afghanistan, the program is designed to instruct and support young leaders.

I was born with athletic ability. God has completely blessed me. And the Bible says, 'To whom much is given, much is required,' and so I feel like I've been given a lot, so I want to give back a lot.

-- Arizona State's Danielle Orsillo

As evidenced by the seemingly endless interviews and attention directed the way of all four teams in Trenton this weekend, it's easy for college basketball to become an insular world. Practice, games, travel, classes -- there may barely be time for maintaining some semblance of a social life for oneself, let alone stepping outside the ropes altogether. But for Orsillo, finding the right balance was something that came as naturally as her jumper.

"It just reminds me how blessed I am for my abilities and the things I can do," Orsillo said. "And it wasn't something I necessarily worked for -- you know, I was born with athletic ability. God has completely blessed me. And the Bible says, 'To whom much is given, much is required,' and so I feel like I've been given a lot, so I want to give back a lot."

On the court, at least, something was taken from her last season. After scoring 21 points in 21 minutes on the road against North Carolina in the season's opening game, Orsillo went down with a season-ending knee injury. But even as she watched her team subsequently struggle to duplicate the success it achieved in reaching a regional final the season before, Orsillo seized the opportunity to make sure she would be a part of the solution, even going so far as to break down tape of every game she played in her last healthy season.

"When you're playing, you're so involved in what you have to do," Orsillo said. "You're in the game, so you don't really get to see the game for what it is … to get an outsider's perspective, which I mean, I haven't gotten in the 12 years I've been playing basketball. I was always on the court playing it, involved in every play."

As Orsillo gradually regained her old athleticism to complement her newfound acumen, the Sun Devils found themselves with a tremendous three-guard rotation atop the larger pyramid of personnel. Senior Briann January remained one of the game's best-kept secrets outside her time zone, shooting nearly 45 percent from behind the arc and leading the team in assists even as she deferred point guard duties to Simon.

[+] EnlargeBriann January
AP Photo/John BazemoreBriann January is averaging 12 points per game and shooting 45 percent from behind the arc for ASU.

After her team rolled over California in a 63-41 win at Berkeley on March 5, Turner Thorne felt there was potential to go a long way in the NCAA tournament.

Two days later, after Simon suffered a season-ending knee injury of her own at Stanford -- the playmaker's second season-ending knee injury in three years -- the coach didn't know where the season was going. And with less than a week until the Pac-10 tournament, the Sun Devils had to redistribute their carefully balanced responsibilities. Among the shifts, January returned to point guard, senior guard Kate Engelbrecht returned to the starting lineup -- as she did when Simon went down two years ago -- and Orsillo started looking for more shots.

"We had to completely change our game plan, strategy, everything," Orsillo said. "We had to become a different team -- not necessarily that it was worse or better, but we had to become different. It just took us some time; it took us a couple of weeks to make the transformation, but now we're just playing great basketball and playing really connected."

After losing to USC in their first game of the conference tournament and their first without Simon -- Turner Thorne summed up her team's performance in one word: "brutal" -- the Sun Devils returned to Tempe and made the best of what they had in front of them. Despite dropping to a No. 6 seed and drawing a trip to Duluth, Ga., to play first the University of Georgia and then semi-local Florida State, the result was the third Sweet 16 trip in five years.

"You know, they have older kids; [Briann] January has done a great job for them kind of regrouping them, and Orsillo," Cal coach Joanne Boyle said of her Pac-10 peer in Trenton. "They run a lot of people at you. But I think Charli has done a great job of saying, 'One piece of our puzzle is gone, but we can adjust.' And she's always played 12 and 13 kids, so those kids have a lot of experience with minutes, so being able to just kind of reposition people a little bit and gather herself through the tournament -- it took a game or two for them to kind of find their new identity without Dymond."

It helps to have players like Orsillo, players whose identities aren't all about themselves.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

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