Women of Troy target The Big Dance

The Women of Troy opened the season last weekend with a triumphant 73-38 exhibition win against Westmont — and even though the blowout win won’t count toward the standings, it might have been exactly what the Women of Troy needed coming off a disappointing 2012-13 season.

Sparkplug · Junior guard Ariya Crook earned Pac-12 All Honorable Mention last season after emerging as USC’s second leading scorer with 13.4 points per game. Crook was also was second in assists (2.9 apg) and steals (1.2 spg). - Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

Sparkplug · Junior guard Ariya Crook earned Pac-12 All Honorable Mention last season after emerging as USC’s second leading scorer with 13.4 points per game. Crook was also was second in assists (2.9 apg) and steals (1.2 spg). – Ralf Cheung | Daily Trojan

USC (11-20) finished seventh overall in the Pac-12 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive year, leading to the resignation of former coach Michael Cooper. The program’s future looked uncertain before a former Trojan emerged to provide a glimmer of hope.

New coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke’s career has come full circle after winning two NCAA championships at USC as a player in the 1980s before going on to win an Olympic gold medal and four WNBA titles. With last season behind them, USC’s veteran-studded roster now seems ready to bounce back under Cooper-Dyke, who has injected a sense of energy into her team much like her male counterpart has for the Trojans.

“I’m excited to be back, excited for the challenge,” Cooper-Dyke said. “I think we have a great group of young women and I think they’re motivated. And as a coaching staff, we’re equally motivated, if not more.”

But it’ll take more than enthusiasm to win games in the stacked Pac-12, and the one player poised to lead the Women of Troy on the stat sheet and in the huddle is senior forward Cassie Harberts.

Harberts’ stats are undeniable. Last season she made the All Pac-12 team after leading the Women of Troy in points per game (18.0), rebounds per game (8.2) and blocks (34). Her outstanding play has earned her a long list of preseason accolades. This offseason, Harberts was named to the John R. Wooden Award Preseason Top 30 list along with being selected as a finalist for the 2014 Senior CLASS Award.

Harberts is currently the No. 16 all-time scorer at USC with 1,293 career points, and has started every game for the Women of Troy while she’s played at Troy. She will likely go down in USC history among the great women’s basketball players to come out of the program including her new head coach Cooper-Dyke, WNBA stars Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie.

Harberts is also in good company among her talented teammates, with the Women of Troy returning all but one player to their roster with the lone graduation of forward Christina Marinacci.

Sophomore guard Jordan Adams, a former McDonald’s All-American, is set to return after playing only eight games last year before being sidelined by an injury.

Along with Adams, the backcourt should have great depth with dynamic sophomore guard Brianna Barrett and junior guard Ariya Crook also earning plenty of minutes. Last season, Crook earned All Pac-12 Honorable Mention while Barrett received Pac-12 All-Defensive Honorable Mention and Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention.

Between the leadership of seniors Desireé Bradley, Kate Oliver, Rachel Totten and Harberts and the addition of transfers forward Kaneisha Horn and guard Alexis Lloyd, the Women of Troy should have little trouble replacing the leadership and defensive tenacity of Marinacci.

Lloyd is a transfer from Virginia Tech who will have to sit out this season. Horn, on the other hand, is a junior transfer from Alabama who hopes to make an impact immediately.

Horn will play this season as a versatile forward and has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

The Women of Troy will face a challenging set of foes on their redemption campaign under Cooper-Dyke. The squad will play eight teams that made it to the NCAA Tournament last year and 12 teams that were either ranked or received votes in the final national polls last season.

USC’s season kicks off this weekend up north against two teams that the Women of Troy have some unfinished business with — UC Davis and Fresno State.

The Aggies trumped the Women of Troy at the Galen Center last season 78-69. After beating USC last season, however, the Aggies stumbled to a similarly tumultuous 12-18 season.

Both teams have something to prove in the opener, and the Aggies have a weapon that could present some real problems for USC. Junior forward Sydnee Fipps was named All-Big West first team after finishing second in the conference in scoring (17.1 points per game) last season. The Women of Troy will have to contain her spot-up shot if they want to redeem last season’s home-court loss.

USC will round out its first road trip at Fresno State, who defeated the Women of Troy 65-60 in Fresno last season to even the all-time series between the two programs at 5-5. The Bulldogs figure to be one of the toughest opponents the Women of Troy will face all season.

Last season, the Bulldogs (24-9) won the 2013 Mountain West tournament championship title, earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 15 seed before losing to California. Fresno State has been picked to win its second consecutive conference title in the preseason poll.

As Cooper-Dyke sets to begin her first season as coach at her alma mater, her expectations are tempered yet optimistic.

“We just want to take it one game, one practice at a time and really be the best women’s basketball team that we can possibly be,” Cooper-Dyke said. “That’s the goal: Be our best. We don’t want to allow ourselves to underachieve.”

If the Women of Troy are determined to avoid underachieving and earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament, it’s hard to imagine a better start than defeating two teams that contributed to last season’s disappointing campaign.