USC won its first home game under new coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke on Wednesday night, staking out a big lead against San Diego State before withstanding a late rally to win 65-61.
The game came down to the final seconds after the Women of Troy (3-0) were up by as much as 19 points in the first half. Junior guard Ariya Crook scored a team-high 18 points while senior forward Cassie Harberts contributed 17 points for the Women of Troy. The victory avenged last season’s devastating 34-point loss to the Aztecs (0-2).
The Women of Troy came out of the gates with a vengeance, attacking the Aztecs on both ends of the floor en route to a 24-5 lead. At one point, USC’s defense held the Aztecs scoreless from the floor for more than 10 minutes.
“We jumped on them early,” Cooper-Dyke said.
But turnovers and fouls allowed the Aztecs to gain some momentum as the final minutes of the first half wound down, and managed to cut USC’s lead to 32-19 heading into the locker room.
“We never quite regained that initial intensity back in the latter part of the first half,” Cooper-Dyke said.
Though the early foul trouble caused the Women of Troy to back off defensively, they showed the makings of an elite defensive team.
The Aztecs made just three of 19 attempts from the floor in the opening half for a dismal field goal percentage of 15.8. San Diego State scored just six of their 19 points in the first half from the field, tallying their other points at the free-throw line. The Women of Troy forced 15 turnovers in the first half and Aztec center Cierra Warren, a Louisville transfer, was held scoreless in the first half.
Once the second half was underway, the Women of Troy could not seem to find the perfect combination of players on the floor, causing their 13-point halftime lead to quickly wither away.
As the Women of Troy struggled to regain control of the game, Warren was able to get into a rhythm, making her virtually unstoppable. Warren ended up with a game-high 21 points, all of which came in the second half. She scored 12 of the 13 points during a late run for the Aztecs to cut the Women of Troy lead down to just three late in the second half.
Crook was fouled and sent to the line with 2.6 seconds left on the clock, and knocked down one of her free throws to extend USC’s lead to 65-61 and halt the Aztecs’ last-gasp comeback attempt.
It was fitting that Crook would take the final free throws for USC — the junior guard took the offensive reins for the team while Harberts was sidelined for most of the first half due to foul trouble. Cooper-Dyke spoke highly of the budding leader.
“She can score and she’s a great passer,” Cooper-Dyke said. “We expect her to perform well offensively.”
But after missing an easy layup in the second half, Cooper-Dyke says Crook still needs some polishing.
“She can either get too high or too low in temperature, so my coaching staff is working with her to find a happy medium,” Cooper-Dyke said.
Crook says her coach’s upbeat demeanor has helped spark her play.
“She really motivates me,” Crook said. “She gave us confidence and has been shifting our mentality from street ball to team ball.”
Crook is not the only one who has bought into the Cooper-Dyke system.
“It’s a different mentality,” said Harberts. “She preaches score, score, score but does not let us forget about defense.”
The offense-first system seems to be working so far — the Women of Troy are 3-0 for the first time since the 1998-99 season, and have defeated three opponents — the Aztecs, Fresno State and UC Davis — who beat them last season.
“It’s important for me to stress that USC women’s basketball is not about the [Cheryl] Miller, [Sheryl] Swoopes and [Paula] McGee era,” Cooper-Dyke said, referring to the trio of USC hoops legends who increased the relevance of the program alongside herself. “It is these players’ time to leave their footprint and create their own legacy at this school.”
If the Women of Troy continue to play at this level, they will be well on their way to doing just that.
Harberts says her teammates are working on translating the great off-the-court chemistry they have developed over the past couple years to the court. As the season progresses, the Trojan faithful will see if they are able to successfully do so.
The Women of Troy’s get a nine-day break before their next game on Nov. 22, when they’ll take on Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla.
Follow Lauren on Twitter @LJonesSports