USC set to begin WNIT play

A year ago, USC coach Michael Cooper declined a chance to have the USC women’s basketball team play in the WNIT after finishing the season 19-12.

But this year, after his team was once again left out of the NCAA field with the same record, Cooper decided to accept a bid to the postseason tournament.

“I think it’ll serve us right this year,” Cooper said. “Obviously, the [NCAA tournament] is what we wanted to be in, but [the WNIT] will give us a chance to play together more as a team … We’ll use this as a springboard to hopefully get us going for next year.”

The Women of Troy, appearing in the WNIT for the first time since 2002, will try to start a run through the tournament on their home court tonight against the Gauchos.

Despite the disappointment of being denied the chance to play in the NCAA tournament two years in a row, the players are maintaining a positive mindset.

“Coming that close to making the NCAA tournament is a bummer,” said sophomore forward Christina Marinacci. “It’s going to be hard to get over that. But my mindset is … [to try] and win the whole thing, and show the committee that we deserved to play in the NCAA’s.”

The Gauchos (19-11), regular season champions of the Big West conference, enter the WNIT after being upset by Pacific University 49-45 in the first round of the Big West tournament.

UCSB is led in scoring by junior guard Emilie Johnson with 13.6 points per game. The Gauchos also have senior center Mekia Valentine, a University of Wake Forest transfer who averages a double-double with 11.1 points and 11.0 rebounds per game.

USC is 11-13 all-time against UCSB, with its last matchup coming in November 2008 that resulted in a 62-53 win.

If the Women of Troy defeat the Gauchos, they could face a couple familiar conference rivals that could act as roadblocks in the team’s march towards a WNIT championship.

Arizona, who holds a 2-1 edge over USC this season, could face off against the Women of Troy as early as the third round.

Defending WNIT champion California awaits the Women of Troy following that game in the quarterfinals. The teams split their two matchups this season, each winning on their own home court.

Tonight’s game marks the fifth straight game that USC will have played at the Galen Center, where the team went 12-4 during the regular season and Pac-10 tournament.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m.