The USC women’s basketball team wants to make a splash at the NCAA tournament

LOS ANGELES — The Pac-12 women’s basketball schedule is a beast, and no one gets through unscathed. USC is in the thick of things, and perhaps Friday night’s events at the Galen Center are an example of why.

The Women of Troy were trailing 8-20 after one period against an Oregon team they defeated 73-45 in Eugene on New Year’s Day and hadn’t lost to USC since January 2016.

No problem. The Trojans players came to the sidelines, faced each other and carried the fight to the Ducks in a 56-51 win, a display of resilience and determination they kept in the mix in an insanely good conference.

Going into Sunday’s games, Utah and Stanford lead 11-2, and the Trojans (7-5 ​​in conference, 18-6 overall) have already beaten Stanford, then No. 2 in the country. Colorado is 10-3 and the Buffaloes were in 25th place when the Trojans defeated them in Boulder. UCLA and Arizona are 8-5 and both in the top 25, and USC lost two painful games to the Bruins and an even more painful double-overtime game to the Wildcats last weekend. And in Utah, then No. 9, USC trailed 20 by 3:27 in the third and cut the lead to six with 3:09 in the game before the Utes pulled out.

ESPN Bracketology’s latest projections have eight teams from the Pac-12 fielded in the 68-team women’s NCAA tournament, and Stanford and Utah are hosting Regionals as the top-4 seeds. But the Trojans will be there somewhere. And at this rate, they’re going to make someone very uncomfortable, maybe several people, because they’ve seen it clearly and come out the other side.

“The games are going to the max,” said guard Destiny Littleton, the South Carolina grad who has become the leader of this group (and who played every 40 minutes Friday night). “Every single game in the Pac-12 is a really tough game. For example, our last game was double overtime (an 81-75 loss to Arizona last Sunday). We were dog tired. We were just trying to make plays, make the right plays.

“And, you know, it happens like this. Sometimes you’re on the winning side and sometimes you’re not. But at the end of the day, games in this league come so fast… you blink your eyes and we’re ready for another game. So we have the opportunity to turn the page for our two or three day preparation for the next team. And I think you have to be able to do that in the Pac.”

The first game against Oregon was the anomaly, a game where coach Lindsay Gottlieb felt the Trojans didn’t look like themselves.

“I couldn’t be prouder of how we reacted (Friday) because it wasn’t like it happened suddenly,” she said. “It wasn’t like, okay, we’re a different team out here and we’re just going to win this game. We really had to fight and get rid of all the negative thoughts in our heads. It was like, now let’s play, we can do this. And I saw how faith grew in them little by little.”

There were a number of heroes. Littleton had 18 points, as did forward Okako Adkia, who contributed four 3-pointers and also had 11 rebounds. Rayah Marshall also had 11 rebounds, and that particular hustle stat may have been indicative of how the game turned. In the first quarter, Oregon passed USC 13-10 with 6-foot-8 Ducks center Phillipina Kyei picking up a six. As the game progressed, USC overtook Oregon 34-25, and the Trojans also had 10 steals and seven blocked shots, topping Oregon 17-7 on turnovers.

“Sometimes when a team comes at you, you lose a little bit of confidence and things spiral out,” Littleton said. “But we haven’t lost confidence. … Last game was in the back of our minds and we were like, ‘We’re not going to go out like this.'”

These are the kinds of experiences that make players tougher and unite a team, and they can absolutely make a difference when March comes around. More importantly for a team like the Trojans, who have made seven trades and also had their head coach on maternity leave earlier in the season, all of which contributed to what seemed like an extended induction period.

“We’re older, more experienced, but we don’t have any experience with each other,” Gottlieb said. “We’ve had struggles throughout the year to figure out who we can be and who we want to be. And I think it would have been easier (Friday night) to turn around, like, “Well, we’re going to get a Sunday.” And nobody had that mentality.”

I asked Gottlieb at what point she felt resilience and used those grits.

“I think our toughness and defensive tenacity has shown since the beginning of the year,” she said. “But the season is long and challenges you in different ways. And we just came off a double overtime loss. And I think as a coach you kind of have to, you know, keep reinvesting and investing in the mentality because it’s just, right, in the heat of the season for anyone or any group to lose focus or get relegated on course.

“I think this team has always had toughness and tenacity. But you learn how to react to tough things as the season progresses. And I think this week really showed that.”

The services should come in March. USC is not ranked, but its NET rating of 28 is factored into the weekly numbers to put right into the tournament mix. Beating Stanford last month didn’t hurt, although the rematch on the Cardinal’s floor is next week.

“We’ve come from, I don’t know, from last place in the Pac-12 to now, we’re fighting for a top four spot and just bringing that to the attention of the nation,” Littleton said. “Every day these girls come in and there is no end. You know, we’re competing, we’re getting out of here, we don’t care if we’re ranked, we don’t care who we’re playing against. And I think that’s more than just being number one or having won before. Because to get there you have to feel like, hey, we’ve never been there, but we have to get together and play. And I think my teammates do that every day.”

There are five games left before the conference tournament before Sunday’s game against Oregon State. It doesn’t get any easier, but USC seems prepared for the challenge.

USC women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb (right) consults with Rayah Marshall during a game last season. This year's squad has already knocked off no. 2 Stanford and appears capable of making noise in the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Ringo HW Chiu)
Lindsay Gottlieb, USC women’s basketball coach, confers with Rayah Marshall during a game last season. This year’s squad has already knocked off no. 2 Stanford and appears capable of making noise in the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Ringo HW Chiu) The USC women’s basketball team wants to make a splash at the NCAA tournament

Russell Falcon

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