The USC women’s basketball team’s season came to an abrupt end last Saturday, when St. John’s handed the No. 24 Women of Troy a first-round NCAA tournament loss. Still, the team exceeded expectations in its first year under head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, a season that was highlighted by a remarkable upset of Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament.
Though the team’s success was somewhat unexpected, it adds to a long tradition of success for USC women’s basketball. From 1991-1994, the program made four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. Much of this success was driven by women’s basketball legend and pioneer Lisa Leslie, who was selected to four All-Pac-10 teams and set numerous conference records in her time at USC. Later, Leslie would go on to make eight WNBA all-star teams and be named MVP of the league three times. The Gardena, Calif. native also won four gold medals in four Olympic appearances. Today, Leslie is heavily involved in the Capital One Cup, annually awarded to best men’s and women’s collegiate athletics programs in the country. Daily Trojan Sports Editor Aubrey Kragen sat down with Leslie last weekend.
DT: Can you explain what the Capital One Cup is and your involvement with it?
Leslie: I’m on the advisory board for the Capital One Cup and I enjoy following all the sports throughout the college sports season, but of course basketball is my favorite and every sport has bragging rights — every sport. And whether it’s soccer or basketball, the Capital One Cup really represents the ultimate bragging rights in college sports. I’m really pulling for USC. We’re ranked No. 14 right now on the women’s side, which is great. But we’ve got to win some more national championships, of course. I’m always biased when I’m talking about the Capital One Cup because I always have to throw in USC. Actually, our men are ranked No. 18, so we’re not doing terrible, but we could definitely move up in the rankings and earn more points. The winner can earn 60 points if you win a national championship for the school, so right now Penn State’s women are No. 1, and UCLA is actually No. 2, so I’m not too happy about that. And then on the men’s side, Florida State leads the way. The winner for the men’s and women’s athletic program wins the Capital One Cup trophy, which we will present at the ESPYs. And they also get a combined $400,000 in athlete scholarships at the end of the spring athletic season.
DT: Do you think senior forward Cassie Harberts has what it takes to succeed in the WNBA?
Leslie: I’ve seen her improve every year, year in and year out. I really love the new move she’s added with that turnaround fadeaway jumper that she’s been able to make consistently, so I think Cassie has really improved every year. That’s what you want to see, especially in your senior year. It’s great that she’s been able to lead her team to the title, with Coach [Cooper-Dyke] as well. So I’m really excited about her possibilities at the next level.
DT: In general, what do you think it takes to be successful in the professional leagues?
Leslie: Well, the first thing I would suggest for Cassie is to get a personal trainer because it’s a very physical league and that’s probably the biggest transition I would say that I remember coming from the WNBA when it began — how physical it was on my body. It’s very taxing, so you need to get in the weight room, make sure that you’re physically fit from a standpoint of stamina. Because she’s not gonna come in and be a starter, but if you’re talking about being the 10th or 11th player on a team, you have to be physically fit and ready to come in. I think she should start from there, and then you never know. You get into the try-outs, and you’ve got to give it your all. Like I said, I like her jump shot. I would say she has to focus more on rebounding, because rebounding offensively is really key and just focusing on a lot of the small things and figuring out what she can bring and add to a team.
DT: Why is it important for women to participate in sports and for that to be rewarded?
Leslie: Statistics show that girls who play sports are more likely not to do drugs, more likely not to get pregnant early, they’re more likely to go to college, they’re more likely to finish college. They’re more likely to excel in the business world. There are so many positive things surrounding what happens when you participate in sports and any extracurricular activities. I found that basketball, for me, has really helped me be the person that I am. I’m able to deal with just life situations, good or bad. Things that are tough, it’s been tough in a game before. Things get hard, we always say you learn more about people during hard times. In good times, it’s easy. So I’m a huge promoter of girls and women in sports just because you’re more likely to be able to succeed when you’re done with your basketball career.