After a season that included memorable highs and devastating lows, the USC women’s basketball team heads into the Pac-12 conference tournament in Seattle hoping for one last shot at an NCAA tournament berth. Head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke’s Women of Troy could sneak into the big dance with a marquee win, possibly over No. 4 Stanford in the third round, but would have to win the entire event to make anything certain. Daily Trojan sports columnists Nick Burton, Jacob Freedman, Euno Lee, Darian Nourian and Sports Editor Will Hanley discussed the team’s first-round matchup against Arizona and its chances going forward.
Q: How do you think USC matches up against Arizona, its first round opponent?
Burton: USC should blow past Arizona. The Women of Troy looked much better this past weekend (albeit against the lowly Rocky Mountain schools) than in the previous month or so. If they regain their early-season form when they started out 7-1 in conference, they could knock off No. 4-seed ASU in the second round, reaching the magic number of 20 wins.
Hanley: It might be an unpopular opinion, but I am not certain that USC is the matchup nightmare to Arizona that many have claimed. Though some stats from the teams’ January meeting give the impression that the Women of Troy will dominate, I’m not so sure. For one, USC turned the ball over 18 times against the Wildcats in January. They edged out a comfortable win, but Arizona’s ball-hawking guards will once again be a forced to be reckoned with for Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and the Women of Troy. Another disheartening stat from January: senior forward Cassie Harberts only managed eight points, well below her season average. Without an 18 point and 50 percent shooting performance from junior forward Alexyz Vaioletama, it’s not out of the question to think USC could have lost that game.
Nourian: The Women of Troy match up really well with Arizona, especially down low and this was apparent the last time the two teams met in Tucson when USC jumped out to a 42-23 second half lead and hung on to prevail 54-45. In this game, USC out-rebounded the Wildcats 44-33. Both forwards Cassie Harberts and Alexyz Vaioletama, who had a game-high 16 points in their last meeting, need to take advantage of their size should the Women of Troy wish to advance. They also need to learn how to hold a lead should they build one early.
Q: Which USC players need to step up to help USC advance?
Freedman: Ariya Crook. The Trojans’ long-ball shooter has made less than 33 percent of her shots in seven of her last eight games. That won’t be an issue against Arizona, but USC will need to capitalize against the poor shooting defense of Arizona State (43.7 percent allowed, 11th in the Pac-12) in the quarterfinals if they beat the Wildcats. USC won’t be going to the NCAAs without a win over the Sun Devils, and if Crook has another 4-for-15 performance, the Trojans will be hard-pressed to do so.
Lee: The biggest contribution for the Women of Troy should come from the low post — senior forward Cassie Harberts. Harberts has been dominant in the low post this season, averaging 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds this season, and junior forward Alexyz Vaioletama will be expected to help anchor frontline scoring to give more opportunities to junior guard Ariya Crook. Crook, who led the Women of Troy in scoring in 13 of 30 games this season, will benefit from a balanced attack and stretch the floor for USC’s other shooters.
Nourian: Well, of course the team is going to need strong performances by their star players in Cassie Harberts and Ariya Crook, but the X-factor will be the one they call ‘X,’ in junior forward Alexyz Vaioletama. ‘X’ has had a breakout year, doubling the output from her sophomore season and, most importantly, she played her two best games of the year against both Arizona teams where she led the team in scoring in both games. It is apparent that ‘X’ has grown and gained more confidence with a little guidance from head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.
Selbe: Not the most original answer, but the Women of Troy will go as far as senior forward Cassie Harberts will take them. Harberts leads the team in points, rebounds and blocks, and that type of presence down low remains the team’s biggest strength. USC was able to get by the Wildcats without much production from Harberts earlier in the season, and likely will be able to again should she struggle once more. But if the Women of Troy want to make a legitimate run, Harberts will need to be at her best.
Q: How far will the Women of Troy make it into this year’s conference tourney?
Burton: Out in the second round to ASU, again just missing the NCAA Tournament. Still a great start for coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke.
Freedman: Semifinals. The Trojans should handle Arizona, and while Arizona State topped USC by eight at Tempe in January, the Lady Sun Devils are coming off an unimpressive sweep up in Oregon. The Trojans should use the confidence from their two-game Rocky Mountain road trip, and sail into the semifinals before falling to Stanford and give the NCAA Selection Committee a tough decision to make come selection time.
Hanley: As clichéd as it is, USC’s performance in this tournament will entirely depend on which USC team shows up to play. Will it be the team that took down Cal on the road to cap a stretch of nine wins in 10 games, or the team that lost six of their next eight? It looks like the team is turning things around, finishing off the season with road wins over Utah and Colorado. I think the team will squeak past Arizona and use the momentum from that big win to overpower Arizona State. Could the Women of Troy upset No. 4 Stanford after that? Judging by USC’s five-point loss in the two squads’ last meeting and the general malaise that accompanies a conference tournament, it’s certainly possible. Still, I don’t see it happening. The National Invitational Tournament is calling.
Nourian: USC has proved that they can play with any team in the Pac-12 at their best, but we have also seen them have letdowns against teams that they should have beaten. I am confident they will beat Arizona, but their second-round matchup against Arizona State is a toss-up. The last time the two teams met, the ranked Sun Devils won at home in overtime. Both teams shot the ball extremely well that game, shooting over 50 percent from the field, but the Women of Troy could have easily won had they made their free throws. They went 9-20 from the stripe while the Sun Devils got to the line 34 times and made 28 of them. I truly believe that USC will win this game to move on to play, unfortunately, the conference’s No. 1-seeded team in No. 4-ranked Stanford, led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Chiney Ogwumike. I think the end of the road in the tournament will come against the Cardinal.