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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Spotlight on the Pac-12: Can USC handle center stage?

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Ashley Corral leads the Women of Troy into a crucial weekend.

Photo Credit: Courtesy USC Sports Information/Jon Kondrath.

By Morris Phillips

At 12-10, 6-5 in Pac-12 play and coming off a sobering loss at home, the Women of Troy don’t appear to be headed anywhere fast.

But if USC takes full advantage of their trip to the Bay Area this weekend, it would rank as the equivalent of 12 young ladies rolling a fleet of roadsters on to the Autobahn then burning rubber with their hair blowing in the wind.

And if the joyride takes place, you couldn’t find a more relieved group unless you called the names of the most over-the-top contestants sitting in the first row at “Let’s Make a Deal.”

The Trojans last made an NCAA appearance in 2006, and in the five seasons since they appear to be operating in a small room with a low ceiling. Blessed with undeniable talent and cursed by a series of crushing injuries, USC has seen all five campaigns end early sprinkled liberally with disappointment. Even their season records (17-13, 17-13, 17-15, 19-12 and 19-12) since 2006 seem caught in a web of unappealing symmetries. Hidden in the subtext of these subpar seasons, one can find two silver linings: a 73-72 upset of Stanford in 2008 and late season runs of success in each of the last three campaigns.

USC hopes those two threads of hope intersect Thursday night at No. 4 Stanford, where they haven’t won at Maples Pavilion since 2001.  If so, the Trojans will then turn their attention to California on Saturday night where they haven’t won since 2005. For the Trojans — ranked 45th in the current Sagarin ratings—pulling the double upset would be the ultimate bang for your buck: USC would spring from another near .500 campaign to the cusp of the NCAA tournament almost overnight. Ashley Corral, USC’s emotional leader, realizes the significance of the opportunity.

“I know this weekend is big,” Corral said.  “We’ve got tremendous upside and I personally am not going out without a fight.”

The Trojans have been fighting with adversity all season and the fact that they enter this weekend in a hopeful frame of mind is a victory unto itself. The Trojans lost 6’3” post Michelle Jenkins before the season began, 6’4” Thadessia Southall six games in and Jackie Gemelos after nine games. All three players saw their surgically-repaired knees reinjured and the emotional toll of the repeated ACL injuries affected the entire team. For Gemelos —the victim of four ACL injuries involving both knees — the latest ended her college career.  Still, even in terms of ACL injuries, the Women of Troy have seen a rebirth: Stefanie Gilbreath missed her first three seasons at USC with three separate ACL injuries only to return last year and then appear in all 22 games thus far this season.

Injuries aren’t all that USC has had to deal with. Former Sparks’ coach Michael Cooper compiled a schedule for his Trojans that would have severely challenged a healthy team. To date, the nation’s 14th toughest schedule has saddled USC with a handful of close, high-profile losses and setbacks to three of last year’s NCAA Final Four participants, including defending champion Texas A&M. At College Station, the Trojans led for most of the second half, only to fall due to a clutch jumper from A&M’s Sydney Carter in the final seconds. Against Stanford in the Pac-12 opener, USC took a 44-43 lead with 10:28 remaining, then went more than six minutes without a point as the Cardinal seized control. The Trojans didn’t fare as well at Notre Dame — losing 80-58 — but they have quality wins over Fresno State, No. 18 Gonzaga, Arizona State and Cal.

So before anyone declares this another WNIT season, the weekend has to play out for USC. If the Trojans prevail in the Bay Area, they close with meetings against five Pac-12 opponents—four of whom they’ve already beaten this year. And while senior leaders Corral and Briana Gilbreath haven’t led their USC teams to the NCAA tournament, they have finished strong before. In 2009, the Trojans reached the Pac-10 championship game only to fall to Stanford.  In 2010, they took a six-game win streak into a Pac-10 tournament semifinal only to drop a close one to crosstown rival UCLA. Last year, USC finished with wins in eight of the final 10 games, including four straight on the road that carried them to the WNIT championship game, which they dropped at Toledo.

“It’s difficult fighting on the road,” Cooper said after the loss to Toledo. “I always tell our team championships are won on the road, but it’s always a tough fight. We fought as hard as we could.”

The fighting — against tough opponents, injuries and adversity — has continued unabated this season.  And they haven’t always been fair fights.  With the attrition, the Trojans are smallish and thin in numbers. And after five seasons of disappointment, USC isn’t “trending” in L.A. The Galen Center is among the nation’s toniest on-campus facilities, but the friends-and-family atmosphere hasn’t provided the Trojans much of a home court advantage. Both factors contributed to USC’s come-from-ahead 61-67 loss to Washington as the Trojans ran on fumes down the stretch.

“We took that one personally,” Corral said of the loss to the Huskies. “We don’t think we played to win.”

Against Washington, USC led 9-0 by holding Kevin McGuff’s squad scoreless for nearly the first five minutes of the game. After a pretty fastbreak, alley-oop pass and lay-in from Corral to Briana Gilbreath, the Trojans stretched their lead again to nine, 47-38 with 12:12 remaining. But at that point, Washington’s size and insistence on crowding the lane defensively took its toll on USC.  The Trojans missed 13 of their final 16 shots, committed five turnovers, and went away quietly. Throughout Cooper implored his team to play faster, with few results.

Among USC’s many issues, 6’2” sophomore Cassie Harberts and 6’1” Christina Marinacci are gifted, but aren’t natural low post scorers. Late in the game, both wore down attempting to deal with UW’s Regina Rogers at both ends of the court. Briana Gilbreath has knee issues as well, missing a pair of games before returning to face Washington State and Washington.  In the final moments against the Huskies, Gilbreath didn’t exhibit her usual explosiveness as it was obvious she was favoring her knee. And freshman standouts Ariya Crook and Alexyz Vaioletama deferred probably as Cooper wished they be more assertive.

And of course — in an unforgiving league like the Pac-12 —C al and Stanford were watching it all, plotting and scheming for this weekend.

Still, even as the signs point to the contrary, USC has life.  They’re talented — preseason polls picked them to finish second or third in the conference — and that talent remains even with all the injuries. Against the Bay Area schools they’ll need to be effective in transition as things won’t favor USC once the Bears and Cardinal set their half court defenses.  Corral — freed from her usual point guard duties by the emergence of Crook — will have to look to score, early and often. And Gilbreath — like she did against UCLA earlier this season — will have to give the Trojans a little bit of everything.

Defensively, USC will have to identify shooters in transition. The Trojans give up nearly five threes a game, which probably troubles Cooper, the former NBA defensive standout, and makes the Trojans a below-average Division I school in terms of opponent’s three-point shooting percentage.

And Vaioletama — USC’s smaller, scrappier version of Stanford’s Chiney Owgumike — will have to continue her ascent as a player who doesn’t need plays run for her to impact the game. Corral sees the freshman as USC’s secret weapon.

“She will be the ‘X’ factor in this game. That’s funny you mentioned that because her nickname is ‘X’,” Corral said of Vaioletama.

“She’s a higher quality player who has a different style. She reminds me of a men’s player in her ability to play away from the basket, turn and face.”

Corral also believes that recent history — even as it overwhelmingly favors Cal and Stanford — will benefit the Trojans. They may be outmanned and undersold, but they know what they’re facing, saying, “We’ve seen them so many times. We know Nneka and Chiney. We know them from back in high school.”

If so, then this could be the weekend the Trojans go from the outhouse to the penthouse.

Originally published Wed, February 08, 2012

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
10 Ohio State 21-2 11 NR-RV
10 483
11 Tennessee 17-6 8 3 11 476
12 Delaware 20-1 13 NR 12 434
13 Georgetown 18-5 15 11 14 379
14 Texas A&M 16-5 16 6 15 378
15 Nebraska 19-3 18 NR 13 309
16 Rutgers 17-4 14 12 17 372
17 Louisville 17-6 12 9 20 276
18 Gonzaga 21-3 19 NR-RV
19 234
19 Purdue 19-5 17 21 16 222
20 Georgia 18-6 20 12 21 202
21 Penn State 18-5 21 14 18 176
22 DePaul 17-7 23 18 NR-RV
23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
22 104
24 South Carolina 18-5 NR-RV
NR 24 46
25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
NR 45
Dropped Out: No. 24 North Carolina, No. 25 Kansas.
First-place votes: Total first-place votes received (if any) are indicated in parentheses following school name.
Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.