Michael Cooper built his reputation as a defensive stopper — the type of player who shut down the other team’s top scorer night in and night out.
Larry Bird went so far as to call him the best defender he ever played against.
But for all the superlatives heaped upon him as a player, the most important one was winner. Cooper won five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and now brings his winning pedigree to a USC women’s basketball team that is on the cusp of success.
For the Women of Troy to reach their goal, Cooper said the team has to play at the same level of defense his Lakers did.
“That was always our battle cry or mission,” Cooper said. “Defense wins championships, offense wins you some games.”
Entering his first season as coach of the Women of Troy, Cooper inherits a talented but injury-prone squad that made a surprise run to the Pac-10 Championship last season. Two key performers from that team — high-scoring guard Camille LeNoir and center Nadia Parker — are gone, but the Women of Troy return three other players who earned All-Pac-10 honors last season.
Senior Heather Oliver and sophomores Briana Gilbreath and Ashley Corral spearhead the attack for USC. The trio accounted for almost 40 percent of the team’s offense last season and will need to take on even bigger roles to replace the void left by the departures of LeNoir and Parker.
Still, Cooper is counting on the entire team to contribute.
“This isn’t going to be a one-or-two player team,” he said. “Our success is going to be dictated by how we play as a team.”
Two other players who should play a significant role for the team are senior Hailey Dunham and junior Kari LaPlante.
“It’s a big year for us, trying to get to the tournament,” Dunham said. “We haven’t made it in about three years, so I’m hoping to do it in my last year.”
LaPlante might be the most important player on the team this season. Cooper said it will be important for the 6-foot-5 center to stay on the court and out of foul trouble for a USC team that is short on size.
“It’s going to be a mental challenge for me that I’m willing to take,” LaPlante said. “I’m up for it [and] ready to battle with those girls.”
Despite their issues, the Women of Troy have the pieces in place to make another run at the Pac-10 championship — provided they can stay healthy.
Injuries have plagued the team for several years now and have already factored into this season. Redshirt sophomore Stefanie Gilbreath and freshman Vicky Tagalicod both suffered torn ACLs this fall and will have to sit out the season. For Gilbreath, it will be the third consecutive season she has missed with a knee injury.
In Gilbreath and Tagalicod’s absence, USC will look for contributions from two players who have never suited up for the Women of Troy. Highly touted freshman Christina Marinacci comes to USC as one of the top recruits in the country and should help the team get past its injury woes.
“Marinacci is definitely going to be an important factor for us,” Cooper said.
Another former top recruit, redshirt junior Jackie Gemelos, should finally be healthy enough to deliver on the enormous promise she showed as a prep athlete. Gemelos arrived at USC four years ago as the top recruit in the country but has suffered four knee injuries in that time span. She should be ready for action sometime in January.
“Jackie’s a heck of a player,” Dunham said. “I remember playing pickup games with her a couple of summers ago before she got injured and she’s a great passer.”
If USC can overcome some of the challenges it will face this year, the team has a good chance at its first NCAA tournament berth since the 2005-2006 season.
The Women of Troy have already hurdled perhaps their biggest obstacle of the season — adjusting to a new coach and a new system.
“Usually teams kind of butt heads with a new coach, but we really bought in from the start and we’re ready to win some games,” Dunham said.
The team has devoted three quarters of its practice time this fall to shoring up the defense.
“Defense is something we struggled [with] last year,” LaPlante said. “We were at the bottom for giving up points.”
Expectations for the team this season are modest. The Women of Troy sit well outside the preseason polls, although they did receive a handful of votes in the AP poll.
“Obviously people are picking us nowhere near the top so we have nothing to lose,” Cooper said. “We’re just asking all the people to come out and be supportive of us and see a new product that is going to be out there.”
USC will get its first chance at a victory on Friday when it hosts No. 11 Xavier in the season opener for both teams. The Women of Troy also take on Fresno State this Sunday at the Galen Center.