USC Trojans ready for a tough schedule that includes Texas A&M and Notre Dame

LOS ANGELES – It was late September, but it could have been late February the way the USC Trojans were going at it in a brief practice.

They swarmed each other on defense in a four-on-four offensive run; they attacked the basket during five-on-five; and not only did every player look like they were in good shape, the entire team was fast up the down the court.

Players say this is the result of a lot of hard work.

"I feel really good about where we are right now, because we’re a lot further along at this point than we were at this time last year," said senior forward Briana Gilbreath, who stayed in Los Angeles this past summer with the rest of the returning players to work out with USC strength and conditioning coaches and prepare for the season.

"We’ve grown a lot since last year, and the freshmen have added to that."

Senior guard Jacki Gemelos said the entire team has emerged strong from training, and they’re ready to go.

"There’s a difference between the team we have now and those of the past," Gemelos said. "We wanted to get a head start so we didn’t have to catch up."

The hunger of the Trojans comes from falling short the last few years. When Michael Cooper took the reins as head coach in 2009, USC improved their record to 19-12 that season, but they were not awarded a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Nor did they win one last season, despite having virtually the same record and finishing fourth in Pac-10 Conference play.

What they did do was play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, where they finished runners up to champion Toledo after a solid two-week run. Cooper said this year’s team is building on the momentum from that experience.

"The WNIT was good for their psyche and confidence," Cooper said. "In facing Illinois State and their physicality, and BYU and their running game, we realized we were able to keep up with and adjust to all different styles of play. And that to keep evolving, we needed to have a certain mentality and physicality."

Cooper said the difference in this year’s team in both physical strength and confidence compared to past teams is "night and day," and that they are finally all on the same page as a squad. In addressing the Trojans before the late September practice, he told them their motto this year should be "whatever it takes." They took it to heart, and by the end of the session, Cooper was telling them to relax.

"Sometimes they get a little excited because they get the feel of where we could be," Cooper said. "But good teams stay in control and have patience, and let the game come to them. We are learning to slow down."

Of course, Cooper is emphasizing defense in practices, to the point where Gilbreath says it it USC’s number one theme. They will need it in the pre-season, when their opponents include Notre Dame, Gonzaga and defending national champions Texas A&M, who earned their trophy on the strength of their defense.

Cooper said they will use their perimeter game to attack A&M, and that the Aggies shouldn’t discount USC’s defense.

"We’ll be ready," Cooper said.

Part of the reason for Cooper’s confidence is due to the depth of the Trojan squad. Gilbreath was USC’s leading scorer last year at 14.4 points per game, and she played in a summer league this year to hone her skills. Gemelos, fully recovered from a series of ACL injuries, helped the USA World University Games Team win a gold medal in August.

Other top returners include senior guard Ashley Corral, now USC’s career three-point leader; junior forward Christina Marinacci; and sophomore forward Cassie Harberts – also a USA Basketball veteran, who put up 10.2 points a game last season.

The Trojans depth also comes from a strong freshmen class that features two players from two of the country’s top high school teams: Ariya Crook-Williams of Long Beach Poly, and Alexyz Vaioletama from Mater Dei. Cooper said Crook-Williams’ presence will allow Corral – a natural two who has been running the point – to go back to what she does best.

"Ariya gives us a breakdown point guard that we haven’t seen since the days of Camille LeNoir [class of 2009]," he said.

Having both players there means Cooper only has to explain things once.

"Both Ariya and Alexyz are from winning programs, and their basketball IQ is very high," he said.

Thaddesia Southall, a 6-foot-4 freshman forward from Long Beach Poly who sat out last year with an ACL injury, also joins the lineup. Cooper said she’ll provide a strong presence in the middle.

The Trojans also have two players who are helping to tear up practice, but won’t be eligible to play until next season.

Kate Oliver, a 6-foot-4 forward from Australia, left Marist last spring to join the USC program. Kiki Alofaituli is a Southern California native who sought release from her Arizona State University commitment when head coach Charli Turner Thorne announced she was taking a nine-month sabbatical. The school declined the request, so Alofaituli is sitting out.

The combination is, for the most part, seniors and freshmen. Gemelos said it works well.

"We have a good mix of veterans and newcomers," she said. "Leadership is key for this team and people are filling their roles."

Preseason for the Trojans begins on November 7 when they take on Westmont in the Galen Center. They open the season on November 11 at home against Fresno State then travel to Nebraska on November 18 followed by trip below the Mason-Dixon line to face the Southeastern Conference’s Georgia Bulldogs in Athens.

Other key dates before Pac-12 play begins on December 29:

  • November 25 – Notre Dame (Junkanoo Jam Tournament/Bahamas)
  • November 26 – Duke/Gardner Webb (Junkanoo Jam Tournament/Bahamas)
  • November 30 – University of Texas-San Antonio (Galen Center)
  • December 4 – Gonzaga (Spokane, Washington)
  • December 15 – Arkansas State (Jonesboro, Arkansas)
  • December 18 – Texas A&M (College Station, Texas)
  • December 21 – Pepperdine (Malibu)
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