The USC’s women’s basketball team took fate into its own hands Sunday night and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 after clinching the Pac-12 Tournament title against No. 3-seeded Oregon State, 71-62.
This victory was the team’s first ever Pac-12 conference title and was just its second appearance in the title game since the conference expanded to 12 teams. USC set another record in becoming the first team to win four games in four days en route to the championship. The team last won the conference tournament, when it was still the Pac-10, in 1994.
In just one season, head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke has turned around the dynamic of a program that only won 11 games last season, doubling the team’s win total to 22.
“I will not allow these women to underachieve,” Cooper-Dyke said. “I said it right from the beginning. I love this university, this basketball program and these players…We have worked on our toughness. We worked on coming together as a unit. I’m proud to be the head coach of these women on a mission. That is what I wanted to bring here.”
Cooper-Dyke’s words reflect her team’s play throughout the whole tournament, especially the spirit they showed in upsetting top-seeded and No. 4-ranked Stanford, 71-68, in the semifinals, shocking the Cardinal and the rest of the nation and indicating USC’s ascendance back into prominence in women’s basketball.
The upset led to the first time that Stanford wasn’t a part of the conference title game since the tournament’s employment in 2002.
USC’s momentum undoubtedly carried over from that big win, especially on defense, forcing four Oregon State turnovers on the team’s first six possessions.
The Women of Troy were led by the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in junior guard Ariya Crook, who finished the game with 16 points. The Los Angeles native scored 63 total points over the course of the tournament and became the first USC women’s basketball player to be named Pac-12 Tournament MOP.
Senior forward Cassie Harberts, who carried the team in the final minutes of the Stanford game with 10 consecutive points, finished off her Pac-12 career with a 12-point game. Harberts was named to the All-Tournament team for the second time in her USC career.
“We’ve been through injuries, saying we are going to the tournament and then coming up short for the past few years,” Harberts said. “I felt a difference in this team. That we wanted it and we were going to do whatever we had to do to get it. I’m so proud of them.”
Junior guard Kiki Alofaituli added 15 points, while sophomore guard Brianna Barrett posted 11, putting four players in double figures for the Women of Troy.
It was another great game from behind the arc for USC, who shot nearly 60 percent from three-point land (7-for-12). The Women of Troy also made 20 of 24 free throws, good enough for 83 percent.
The Beavers would lead 36-29 at halftime, but USC brought back the defense that carried them all season long, including a press, to stump the Beavers in the closing minutes of the game.
“I thought the press was the difference in the game,” Cooper-Dyke said. “I thought we were slow and lethargic and really played Oregon State’s pace in the first half. Mentally we were trying to figure out if we had enough energy to finish this thing out.”
Oregon State would go almost nine minutes without a basket between the 11:53 and 3:03 mark, which put the Women of Troy on top by double digits as the game went into its final minutes.
The Beavers would get to within five points of USC, but Harberts made a basket with 1:17 left to fend off their late run and would the Women of Troy hit their free throws to hold on.
Oregon State’s Devon Hunter and Sidney Wiese ended up with 19 and 17 points, respectively.
The field of 64 will be announced next Monday, March 17 and the tournament will kick off across the country beginning on March 22.