Trojans' turnaround is complete
SEATTLE -- If there was a title to the story of the Southern California women's basketball team over the past decade, it might be: "Promise Lost."
The talent, the potential, the parade of All-Americans that should have made this one of the premier programs on the West Coast, seemed to dissolve into a smoldering heap every single year.
There was the cruel succession of ACL injuries that cut short the careers of Jackie Gemelos and Stefanie Gilbreath, who were among the most elite recruits in the country when they committed to USC. There were inexplicable late-season losses to lower-division conference teams that would leave the Trojans' résumé lacking when it came in front of the NCAA committee. There were coaching changes and personality conflicts and, to be very honest, a whole lot of underachievement.
But USC changed the narrative on Sunday night at KeyArena.
With a 71-62 win over Oregon State in the Pac-12 championship game, the Trojans aren't just writing a new chapter, but apparently an entirely new book.
And no character will figure bigger than first-year coach Cynthia Cooper, the former international basketball star with a literal fistful of championship rings, who has already proven to be much more than a link to USC's glory days -- the team's back to-back national titles in 1983 and 1984.
"I will not allow these women to underachieve," Cooper said. "I said it right from the beginning. I love this university, this basketball program and these players. ... We have worked on our toughness. We worked on coming together as a unit. I'm proud to be the head coach of these women on a mission. That is what I wanted to bring here."
The program that has come up short so often in the last nine years came up incredibly big again -- 24 hours after knocking top-seeded Stanford out of Seattle.
The Trojans (22-12) earned the program's first Pac-12 tournament title. And they punched a ticket to the NCAA tournament, a place they haven't been since back in 2006.
A second-half defensive press changed the face of this game for the Women of Troy.
Oregon State (23-9) went to the locker room with a 36-29 lead and Cooper looked at her players, who were playing their fourth game in four days, and asked for whatever they had left in the tank. In fact, she expected it.
"She told us we were going to press and we got amped up," junior guard Kiki Alofaituli said. "We just feed off her energy."
And she got everything they had. USC pressed and rattled the Beavers, who shot only 30.8 percent in the second half, making just one 3-pointer.
"They punched us in the face to start the second half," said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck, whose own team is looking well-positioned for an at-large NCAA berth after closing the season with 11 wins in 12 games.
Cooper stalked the sideline in front of her bench in the final minute of the game, from the scorer's table to the foot of the USC band, practically bursting out of her skin in anticipation of the final buzzer.
In the moments after the win, senior forward Cassie Harberts waited alone for her turn to be interviewed on the television broadcast, dropping into a crouch on the floor and putting her head down, as if to absorb it all.
"We've been through injuries, saying we are going to the tournament and then coming up short for the past few years," Harberts said. "I felt a difference in this team. That we wanted it and we were going to do whatever we had to do to get it. I'm so proud of them."
Junior guard Ariya Crook, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player after putting up a team-high 16 points in the final, said Cooper has instilled the team with strong sense of belief.
"She just wants the best for us," Crook said. "For her to start the tone for us is huge. That's why we are in this position right now, because of her."
Cooper, who coached at Texas Southern, UNC-Wilmington and Prairie View A&M before taking the USC job last spring, watched her alma mater flounder from afar for years.
"I was frustrated," Cooper said. "I love this program and I wanted to see us do well and for whatever reason we weren't and it was very disappointing."
When she got her opportunity to come to Los Angeles, she knew her No. 1 priority.
"It's culture," Cooper said. "We had to develop a culture of winning, the way you play games, the way you carry yourself. And I think we are starting to see what it means to be a winner."
When the Trojans lost three straight last month, including a pair of games in the Bay Area to drop to 16-11 and 9-6 in the conference, it was gut-check time.
"It didn't look very good for us and I told them that it wasn't over until we decided it was," Cooper said. "We were out on a limb and we needed to prove that we had it in us."
USC responded with two road wins in Utah and Colorado and then this unprecedented run to a tournament title.
This year, when the players sit in their team room and watch the brackets being rolled out, there will be no suspense.
Harberts has waited four years for this moment.
"I've sat and watched our name not be called, whether we thought it was going to be called or whether it wasn't," Harberts said. "This time we can sit and be proud of what we have accomplished, that we have rightfully earned a spot in the NCAA tournament."
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