In an appropriate reminder of last season’s surprising success, the USC women’s basketball team trounced the Concordia Eagles 120-56 in an exhibition match last Sunday.
Head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke revitalized USC last season, leading the team to a 22-13 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament. The Women of Troy’s trip to the Big Dance — their first in seven years — was sealed after a stunning run to the Pac-12 Tournament title. Cooper-Dyke expects her squad to improve upon its fifth-place finish in the conference’s regular season standings.
“My expectations are always to get better every single game,” the second-year coach said. “We have a Pac-12 Tournament Championship to defend,”
Cooper-Dyke left her mark on USC as a player by winning two NCAA Championships, the only two in the program history. As a coach, she continued to make history by leading the Women of Troy to four wins in a four-day span on their way to the aforementioned Pac-12 tourney championship, including an upset of No. 1-seed Stanford in the semifinals.
“Coach Cynthia [Cooper-Dyke] instilled hard work, putting in extra time on and off the court,” senior forward Alexyz Vaioletama said. “It’s the small things that helped us last year and got us to a championship. It’s about holding yourself to a higher standard.”
Vaioletama scored 12 points in the exhibition, one of seven players that reached double digits.
Vaioletama and redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Adams are team captains for the second consecutive year. Last season, Vaioletama averaged 8.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. She put up career-high 18 rebounds in a loss to Cal State Northridge on Dec. 10, 2013. Vaioletema’s efforts earned her Pac-12 All-Defensive Honorable Mention.
Adams was a McDonald’s All-American and a WBCA All-American out of high school, and earned a Pac-12 All-Academic Honorable Mention last season.
“I worked extremely hard over the summer,” Adams said. “I did my individual workouts, but it was more of a mentality thing. Stepping up as a leader, setting and example on and off court. For me, it was about being the go-to person.”
Despite a few early field goals, the Women of Troy suffocated Concordia’s offense for the majority of the game, forcing 30 turnovers and grabbing 53 total rebounds.
“It’s a process and it’s a mentality,” first-year associate head coach Beth Burns said. “Those of us that really appreciate the defensive side of the ball get rather insulted when people say defense is just hustle.”
All five of USC’s newcomers made their presence known on the hardwood Sunday. Freshman forward Kristen Simon was the Women of Troy’s top-scorer, finishing with 19 points and 15 rebounds.
“It felt good,” Simon said. “I had surgery in the summer, so it’s been a long time since I played a game. The support from my teammates helped me out, so it felt good going back out there.”
The Women of Troy looked like a cohesive unit, even without Kate Oliver, Cassie Harberts and Ariya Crook. Oliver and Harberts were lost to graduation, and Crook was dismissed from the team because of a university and team policy violation. Cooper-Dyke says that moving on without Crook’s contributions will be a team effort. “It gives an opportunity for other people — Jordan Adams, Alexyz Vaioletama, Kaneisha Horn — other players to really step up into that role.” Cooper-Dyke said. “I’m going to look for them and lean on them to really step their game up.”
Along with the five new players, Burns and new assistant coach Taja Edwards make their debut at Troy this season.
The Women of Troy have a challenging road trip ahead of them to begin the regular. On Saturday, they face No. 2 South Carolina. The Gamecocks finished first in the SEC last season, eventually making it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.
Historically, USC has yet to win a game against South Carolina, with the two teams’ most recent meeting resulting in a 70-50 Gamecock win at the Galen Center last season. South Carolina’s leading scorer, Aleighsa Welch, returns this season, hoping to improve upon her 30.5 points per game mark from 2013-2014. Welch earned an All-American Honorable Mention last season and was named to the SEC All-Freshmen Team. Cooper-Dyke knows that beating “the other USC” will not be easy.
“We go on the road with number two in the nation, the University of South Carolina,” Cooper-Dyke said. “That’s gonna be a pretty tough game to start with.”
On Monday, USC will head to North Carolina to face the Davidson Wildcats. Both of the Wildcats top scorers from a season ago — Hannah Early and Dakota Dukes — will return this year. Early led the team with 31.2 points per game last season.
Cooper-Dyke is shooting for the upper-echelon of the Pac-12 and sees all opponents as a stepping-stone to prepare the Women of Troy for the rigor of the conference.
“All of those games are gonna help to get us ready for a very tough Pac 12 schedule,” she said.
Vaioletama admitted that her teammates feel that they must prove their conference tournament win was not a fluke.
“It’s gonna be tough this year,” Vaioletema said. “We haven’t gained that respect from last year for winning the Pac-12 tournament. We have to prove something; we have something to prove.”