After a slow start to the season, the USC women’s basketball team rebounded with a pair of impressive victories over the holiday break.
The Women of Troy (3-3) finished second in their division at the Paradise Jam tournament in the US Virgin Islands and sophomore guard Ashley Corral was named to the All-Tournament team.
A 66-51 loss to Rutgers in the opening game of the tournament dropped USC to 1-3 on the season with two games against ranked opponents on the horizon. Despite the grim prospects, the Women of Troy rose to the occasion with wins over No. 13 Texas and No. 19 Mississippi State.
The victories moved USC to .500 on the season and, more importantly, gave them three wins over teams that made the NCAA tournament last season.
The catalyst for the turnaround was defense. Before the season began, USC coach Michael Cooper spoke at length about wanting his team to play tenacious defense. He got his wish in the final two games of the tournament. The Women of Troy harassed both Texas (4-2) and Mississippi State (4-3) into poor shooting nights.
Defense alone was almost not enough on Saturday against Mississippi State. Despite holding the high-scoring Bulldogs to 35 percent shooting, USC went without a field goal over the final 8:41 minutes of the game and allowed Mississippi State to creep back.
Twice the Bulldogs cut the lead to two points in the final minute, but clutch free throws by sophomore guard Briana Gilbreath and Corral allowed the Women of Troy to hang on for the 64-60 victory.
USC also got big contributions off the bench. The Women of Troy enjoyed a 20-6 advantage in bench points, led by seniors Aarika Hughes and Daniela Roark. Hughes paced USC with 14 points and three steals while Roark knocked down back-to-back threes to put her team up by five points.
A balanced offensive attack helped USC to victory against Texas. Four different players scored in double figures for the Women of Troy, led by Gilbreath’s 13 points. Hughes and junior center Kari LaPlante added 12 points apiece for USC.
The Women of Troy held Texas to just 28 percent shooting for the game. USC broke open a close game in the second half behind some hot shooting from LaPlante, who scored 10 of her 12 points after halftime.
Texas clawed back into the game late behind solid 3-point shooting. Junior Kathleen Nash knocked down her fourth 3-pointer to draw her team within four points late in the game, but the Women of Troy held on and won 61-54.
Senior guard Heather Oliver added 10 points for USC.
The Women of Troy struggled in their first game of the tournament against Rutgers. USC shot just 25 percent from the field in a blowout loss to the Scarlet Knights, 66-51.
Rutgers overcame a game-high 24 points from Corral.