Every USC fan aches for a win in this crosstown showdown.
The Women of Troy crave a victory just as badly — not only to overcome their rival Bruins in a game of basketball, but to take a crucial step on their road to a Pac-12 championship and a berth to the NCAA tournament in March.
Led by senior guards Ashley Corral and Briana Gilbreath, the Women of Troy (8-6, 3-1) will take their three-game winning streak to John Wooden Center in Westwood and face UCLA (7-8, 2-2) Saturday at 2 p.m.
Currently tied in conference play with Washington State (9-7, 3-1), a win will also widen USC’s conference lead over UCLA to two games and maintain its proximity to Stanford (13-1, 4-0), ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and the sole Pac-12 representative.
A victory, however, will not come easily. UCLA has beaten USC in its last four meetings, despite USC holding a 43-37 record all-time against its rival.
In their most recent encounter, the Bruins pulled out a 74-67 victory at the Galen Center in February last season.
“They’ve been a great defensive team.” Corral said. “Their [defense] has hindered us in the past, but I definitely think that this year, our team has strived past that.”
The Bruins have had several personnel changes since their last trip to USC, including the loss of three starters, a season-ending injury for star senior forward Jasmine Dixon and a new head coach in Cori Close.
“I’m sure the new coaching staff they have now is just as good as the last one,” Gilbreath said. “They’re going out to win games just as hard as we are.”
Both teams will have had a week of rest before their face-off tomorrow.
The Women of Troy began a two-game road trip on Jan. 5 by dismantling Arizona State 60-48 behind Corral’s 21-point game. Two days later, they rode Gilbreath’s 17 points and Corral’s seven assists in a narrow 72-67 victory at Arizona.
Corral is four assists away from tying former USC women’s basketball forward and gold medalist Cheryl Miller for No. 6 all-time in assists, although she insists that the record is barely on her mind.
“If it happens, it happens,” Corral said. “There are more important things than me getting that record.”
USC junior guard Christina Marinacci has also stepped up her game in the Pac-12, averaging 13.5 points and 2.9 offensive rebounds in conference games. She scored a career-high 23 points with 9-for-14 shooting in their sole conference loss against Stanford on Dec. 29.
“I’ve been looking to be more aggressive in terms of taking it to the basket, and I’ve had mismatches that the coaches have recognized, and I’ve capitalized on those,” Marinacci said.
Sophomore forward Cassie Harberts also looks to continue her strong conference play. In a win against California on Dec. 31, Harberts sank a career-high 13 free throws on her way to a 23-point, 9-rebound performance.
On the other bench, senior guard Rebekah Gardner and junior guard Markel Walker will head the Bruins’ efforts in pulling their overall record to .500. Gardner leads UCLA in scoring with 14.7 points per game, while Walker pulls out an average of 8.9 rebounds per game.
Gilbreath, who averages 6.4 rebounds, hopes that the team will come together in an effort to dispel Walker’s effectiveness on the boards.
“[Rebounding] is going to be huge for us because we’re usually undersized, but as far as UCLA is concerned, they’re a little smaller than we are,” Gilbreath said. “We have to stick to our game plan as far as boxing out and limiting them to one shot.”
Despite the magnitude of any USC-UCLA clash, the Women of Troy insist this game is no different than the rest, and they continue to have their eyes set on hoisting the conference trophy at the end of the season.
“Every game is one step closer to the Pac-12 championship, and UCLA is just another team in our way,” Corral said.